Issue 69 (2020)

Klim Shipenko: Text (Tekst, 2019)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2020

textIn a raid on a night club in Moscow, Petr Khazin (Ivan Iankovskii), a young officer of the Federal Drug Control Service plants cocaine on Il’ia Goriunov (Aleksandr Petrov in a striking performance) and sends him to prison for seven years. After he is released, Goriunov discovers that his mother is dead, his girlfriend doesn’t want to know him, and his best friend has too many of his own problems to help. Meanwhile, Khazin has made great strides in his career and enjoys a life of power and luxury. Other than his hatred for Khazin, who put him in jail “just because he could,” Goriunov has nothing to live for. Goriunov is able to track down the policeman through his social media profiles. The conversation quickly becomes heated and Goriunov—much to his own surprise—kills Khazin. He hides the body in a sewer and takes Khazin’s phone. From here on, the phone becomes the film’s structuring device. Goriunov assumes Khazin’s digital identity and begins exchanging messages with his family and associates, finding out more about the dirty cop. He soon discovers that Khazin is being blackmailed by shadowy higher authorities and also threatened by drug lords for whom Khazin, an addict himself, supplies the product. In a further twist, Khazin has fallen out with his family over his pregnant girlfriend Nina (Kristina Asmus). Posing as Khazin on the phone, Goriunov improbably manages to solve all of the dead man’s problems. In one of the final scenes, Goriunov pretends to be Khazin’s assistant in order to collect money from the mafia that Khazin was supplying cocaine for and use it to leave the country. However, he has to give the money back, in order to save the dead man’s pregnant girlfriend. No longer hoping to escape his life in Russia, Goriunov returns to his apartment where he is killed during a police siege.

Klim Shipenko’s Text is a rare Russian blockbuster that is gripping and commercially successful, while having contemporary political resonances. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Dmitrii Glukhovskii, which was initially adapted for the theater in 2018, with Kristina Asmus as Nina, a role she reprises in Shipenko’s film. Glukhovskii also wrote the screenplay. One resonance that has caught the eye of viewers is the parallel between the events in the film and the real-life case of Ivan Golunov, who was arrested in 2019 on fabricated drug charges. Incredibly, the name of the film’s protagonist—Il’ia Goriunov—has the same initials and number of syllables. However, what looks like an obvious allusion is in fact a coincidence: Glukhovskii wrote the novel in 2017 and the film was already in post-production when Golunov was arrested. However, the coincidence speaks to a broader political climate. As the Russian film critic Tat’iana Shorokhova (2019) writes, “[Text] is an example of a well-made drama that tackles the burning issues of the moment and presents the reader with many questions: how do you keep living in a country where you can easily be thrown into jail for seven years? If there will be no journalists, no actors to stand up for you? What will happen when you come out and no one needs you anymore?”[1]

textOne of the most effective elements of the film is its foregrounding of technology as a central thematic and stylistic element. Most of the film’s action takes place on the screen of Khazin’s phone. Because Khazin is killed early on, he “appears” in the film mostly through the media files stored in his phone and via his Instagram account. The account (Instagram handle: hzn_pedro) exists in real life and, apart from the fact that all photos on it were uploaded in under a week, looks sufficiently realistic. The rest of the film’s protagonists exist exclusively through text and voice messages they sent to Khazin and rarely, if ever, appear in physical form. With such prominence given to technology—specifically the smartphone screen—it is perhaps unsurprising that one of the first directors to seek the rights for Glukhovskii’s novel was Timur Bekmambetov, who envisioned the adaptation in the mode of “screenlife.” Bekmambetov’s own coinage, “screenlife” refers to films where the action takes place entirely on the protagonists’ screens, as is seen in Bekmambetov’s collaborations with Leo Gabriadze and Stephen Susco, Unfriended (2014) and Unfriended: Dark Web (2018). However, even though he opted for a more conventional format, Shipenko exploits the telephone device in a number of ways in his film.

textText is the first Russian film to focus on the idea of technology as creating a second life via social media and messaging. The idea inevitably brings up the uncomfortable question of what happens to this second life after the first one, the real one, ends. This topic has been extensively explored in Anglophone television like Black Mirror (2011-2019) and The Twilight Zone (2019). But it has been underrepresented in Russian cinema and TV. In Text, the exploration of the digital second life takes a particularly disquieting form—after being murdered, Khazin continues to “exist” through his phone. Moreover, it is not so much Goriunov who takes possession of Khazin’s digital life as the dead man’s digital life takes over him. Goriunov is powerless as the device draws him deeper and deeper into Khazin’s life. Not only does he become embroiled in the policeman’s life; he “becomes” him by assuming Khazin’s digital persona. Indeed, rather than following the rationale of a revenge film, Goriunov actually solves the dead man’s problems. Goriunov fills his own empty existence with Khazin’s relationships (text messages) and memories (multimedia files). The theme becomes prominent in a scene when a sober Goriunov dances in a club while watching a video of Nina dancing on Khazin’s phone. Holding the phone in both hands and laughing joyfully, he “dances” with a woman on the other side of the screen. Khazin’s “second life” becomes Goriunov’s first and only life. Predictably, shortly after “returning” the phone to its rightful owner (i.e. dropping it into the sewer where he left Khazin’s body with a heartfelt “sorry, bro”), Goriunov is shot dead.

Shipenko’s exploration of technology as a force that splits an individual’s existence, creating a parallel life that can be out of sync with real life is reinforced at the level of film style. Asynchronous sound and parallel editing become the film’s distinguishing features. As Goriunov’s obsession grows, the use of asynchronous sound becomes more frequent and multi-layered, blurring the line between the narrative world and that of the dead man’s phone. Scenes are overlaid with the replaying of Khazin’s messages, as many as three times in a row, suggesting perhaps that Goriunov is fixating on them. Additionally, the sound from one scene often bleeds into another, creating acoustic slippages and a persistent mismatch between the visual and the sonic. The impression of being out of sync is reinforced by Shipenko’s use of parallel editing, all the more disorienting because Goriunov appears in multiple scenes in parallel. At the end of the film, Shipenko’s method becomes particularly jarring in a scene that intercuts Goriunov’s conversation with a tour agent who is waxing poetic about landscapes in Thailand (“just like in the movie Avatar”) and quaint Moroccan towns with Goriunov’s long walk through the suburbs piled in dirty snow and a dialogue with a coroner at the morgue. The two plotlines converge when Goriunov seems to simultaneously leave the morgue and the tour agency, only to be killed by the police when he gets home.

textShipenko’s use of the telephone device scandalized some viewers in a scene where Goriunov plays a video of Khazin and Nina having sex from his phone. In the version for theatrical release, the scene was significantly abridged. Russian streaming services, however, offer the full cut which, among other things includes around fifteen seconds in which a hardcore pornographic film is playing in the background of the video. The scene between Khazin and Nina—shot by the actor who plays Khazin on a phone camera—is evidently tamer, yet still explicit. This caused many critics to refer to it as “softcore,” rather than merely “erotic” (eroticheskaia stsena), raising a broader question about images of sex in Russian cinema.

Outside Russia, the overlap between mainstream cinema and pornography, from the use of unsimulated sex to casting adult film actors, has been expanding since the 1970s, including, more recently, in the works of directors such as Gaspar Noé, Catherine Breillat, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Abdellatif Kechiche. The trend is a part of a broader phenomenon that Linda Williams refers to as on/scenity (on-scene as opposed to ob/scene i.e. off-scene). She writes, “The term on/scenity marks both the controversy and the scandal of sexual representation and the fact that its details have become available to the public at large. On/scenity is the flashpoint where conventions of public and private, lustful and lascivious, prurient and ordinary collide, public discussion is produced and old-fashioned obscenity […] is no longer possible” (Williams 1999, 282). Russian cinema has been slow to be influenced by this trend. A breakthrough of sorts was Natalia Merkulova and Aleksei Chupov’s mild erotic comedy Intimate Parts (Intimnye mesta, 2013). The film’s signal achievement, however, was not the portrayal of sex itself, but rather the protagonists’ inability to communicate their desires or often even to speak about any sexual matters at all, which was epitomized, tongue-in-cheek, in the film’s opening words: “I just photograph cocks and pussies. Or cunts. Whichever’s the right term.”  The latest film to scandalize viewers with its purported sexual candor was Nigina Saifullaeva’s Fidelity (Vernost’, 2019) with its sexually adventurous female protagonist but its representations of sex were in fact rather artificial and surprisingly tame. Shipenko does something more interesting with explicit material.

textThroughout the film, Nina is defined by her “to-be-looked-at-ness” (to use Laura Mulvey’s famous term), intensified by the fact that she is observed not only by the viewer but by Goriunov as well—he watches her over and over through photos and videos stored on Khazin’s phone. This voyeuristic relationship reaches its peak when Goriunov masturbates to a video of Nina and Khazin having sex.[2] The video shows a lot more of Nina nude than Khazin, a prevalent focus of heterosexual pornography, yet the scene is not merely gratuitous. Other than making the idea of “scopofilic” pleasure (Mulvey again) of the visual all too literal, the video strengthens Goriunov’s involvement in Khazin’s life and problematizes his relationship with the dead man in general. Three interpretations are possible here. First, the scene foregrounds voyeurism as Goriunov’s way of inhabiting Khazin’s life, which takes on sexual overtones; the video starts with Nina talking about wanting to have a threesome with Khazin and another man, and in a way, the other man in the scene is Goriunov. Secondly, the video intensifies Goriunov’s identification with Khazin: shot by Khazin and from Khazin’s perspective, the video allows Goriunov to inhabit Khazin’s gaze, bringing his identification with the other man to a particularly intimate level. Finally, as Text gives no indication that Goriunov has any desire for Nina, the scene raises the question of who or what Goriunov really finds arousing in the video. It may well be Khazin himself. In this case, technology transforms Goriunov’s already intense obsession with Khazin into homosexual desire. The three interpretations are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they’re hard to disentangle and add further layers to the film’s striking representation of a second life contained inside a smartphone.

 


Notes

1] Due to pressure from the public, Golunov was cleared of all charges.

2] Notably, Williams attributes on/scenity to pornography moving from big screen to small screen with the development of VCR. The introduction of phone cameras sped up and expanded the process.

Daria V. Ezerova
Columbia University

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Works Cited

Shorokhova, Tatiana. 2019. “Sistemnaia oshibka. ‘Tekst’ Klima Shipenko.” kimkibabaduk, 25 October.  

Williams, Linda. 1999. Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press


Text, Russia, 2019
132 minutes, color
Director Klim Shipenko
Script Dmitrii Glukhovskii
Producers Vadim Vereshchagin, Eduard Iloyan, Denis Zhalinskii
DoP Andrei Ivanov
Composer Nikolai Rostov, Dmitrii Noskov, Ivan Burliaev
Production Design Anna Kozlova, Viktoria Efimova-Shestakovskaia
Editing Tim Pavlenko
Release 24 October 2019 (CPS)
Cast Aleksandr Petrov, Kristina Asmus, Ivan Iankovskii, Sofiia Ozerova, Maksim Vinogradov, Dmitrii Glukhovskii, Krilii Nagiev, Elena Finogeeva

Klim Shipenko: Text (Tekst, 2019)

reviewed by Daria V. Ezerova © 2020

Updated: 2020