Issue 70 (2020)

Eduard Oganesian: Chicks (Chiki, 2020)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2020

Chicks The sassiest Russian streaming show of the season, Eduard Oganesian’s hit series Chicks jumpstarts with a sequence in a long-haul driver’s cabin. As the truck hurtles along the highway into a picturesque sunset, the shaky camera captures the cabin’s routine interior decorations: a nude woman figurine, a souvenir Russian flag, and a bottle of vodka. The latter, however, is more than just an accessory: already drunk, the driver is taking gulps right from the bottle along the way. The presence of the hanging nude figurine, too, is not entirely random: the shots of the cabin alternate with the glimpses of the trunk compartment where three girls dressed in sexy prostitute garb keep stumbling upon hanging bulks of meat because of the man’s reckless driving. Disregarding the noises (and any common sense), the driver continues the journey to the sounds of the 1990s’ Eurodance hit “Shut Up (and Sleep with Me)” before collapsing into a drunken slumber. Yet, what could be a murderous disaster is luckily averted: the truck goes off the highway and into the cornfield, where it stops hitting a minor fence. The lucky resolution combined with the upbeat music and spectacular background shots of the golden sunset make the whole scene feel like a gag from a music video by the popular Russian band Leningrad. Cringeworthy but wry, the episode kicks off what looks like a sitcom set in the Russian province.

ChicksThe following sequence, however, strikes the viewer by a sharp contrast in tone. As the girls emerge from the back of the truck in a state of intense shock, we realize that what looked like a gag from the cabin felt like a near-death experience in the trunk. Treated like chunks of meat, dirty and bruised, the prostitutes aggressively hit the unconscious driver. Their screams and spontaneous violence communicate a sense of acute pain, dismay, and horror suddenly taking the viewer into the realm of chernukha.

This genre switch from comedy to chernukha (often happening within one episode, scene, or sequence), in fact, defines the show’s appeal. The balance between the laughable and the appalling allows Chicks to speak about a difficult subject with raw earnestness and, at the same time, aspiration for change. From its curious genre structure and aesthetic choices to a pronounced rejection of any kind of status-quo in the finale, the show presents a refreshing alternative to the prime-time melodramas of Russian contemporary television.

Chicks Set in a generic small town in the south of Russia, Chicks tells the story of four women—Zhanna (Irina Gorbacheva), Sveta (Irina Nosova), Marina (Alena Mikhailova), and Liuda (Varvara Shmykova)—quitting prostitution and trying to open a fitness club. Their dream of a new life is fittingly tied to a longing for a new body (as opposed to their abused bodies continuously struggling with harassment, assault, fraud, and physical violence). And while the actual fitness center remains an attainable fantasy, in the end of the season the characters get closer to realizing their biopolitical dream through extending care and support to each other and those around them.

Chicks In many ways Chicks is a new phenomenon on the Russian entertainment market. Produced for a commercial Internet streaming platform, not a national television channel, the show did not have to comply with the normative restrictions on the use of obscene vocabulary. Not relying on state funding also made it possible to tackle subjects like adolescent sexuality and gender fluidity. Produced for Internet consumption, the series organically (if inadvertently) casts the heroes of the Russian Instagram—the actors Irina Gorbacheva and Anton Lapenko (both of whom first became popular for their viral vlogs). And yet the hype around the production successfully exceeded the space of the Internet, with the show receiving rave reviews in media and top film journals (Iskusstvo kino), and the actors appearing on popular talk-shows (Vechernii Urgant). In addition, the series prompted a petition from the Public Association for Family Protection, which urged to take the show down because of its feminist agenda and LGBT propaganda. While unfortunate, the attention of the public officials proved that Chicks catalyzed important and timely discussions that transgress a limited audience of a commercial streaming platform.

Although the format of the streaming show is relatively new in the Russian context, the subject matter is certainly not. From Petr Todorovskii’s perestroika classic Intergirl (Interdevochka, 1989) to the most recent productions such as An Ordinary Woman (Obychnaia zhenshchina, 2018) and Love Them All (Liubi ikh vsekh, 2019), the image of a prostitute has been persistently present on the post-Soviet screen. Looking at prostitution as a recurrent trope in Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture, Eliot Borenstein traces back its ancestry to the Russian literary tradition, where the fallen woman presents a convenient device activating the themes of suffering, sacrifice, and redemption. As Borenstein shows, in the 1990s, the story of the prostitute was still overburdened with symboliс rather than social concerns, as themes of national humiliation and moral superiority continuously dominate these narratives (Borenstein 2008, 77-97).

Chicks While suffering, sacrifice, and redemption remain important categories in the world of Chicks, the show, in fact, turns the usual scheme upside down, using the tropes of sacrifice and redemption to tell a story about women. When Zhanna agrees to sleep with the nephew of the local mafia leader in exchange for a loan, she is emotionally distraught. Things get even worse when instead of giving her the promised money the man mercilessly mocks her. Extreme despair brings her to the churchyard. The shot capturing Zhanna with her head down under a cross alludes to a crucifixion, taking us directly to the realm of sacrifice and redemption. The iconographic setting is used to frame Zhanna’s story—and yet, just as we see a woman’s head in place of Christ’s, the show gives us a women’s story rather than the usual allegory. If in the Russian narrative tradition, a prostitute’s function is mainly to assist the moral development of a male character, in Chicks Zhanna’s sacrifice helps to redeem the other girls by allowing them to change their lives (the fitness club being originally Zhanna’s idea).

Unlike narratives from the 1990s, the series stays away from using female characters as a foil for the male hero, as well as from drawing easy parallels between prostitutes’ trials and issues of national superiority. When Zhanna is sent to prison for a crime she did not commit, we hear a conversation about Russian exceptionalism taking place between her wardmates. One of them wearing a Marlboro hat almost unsurprisingly champions the country’s remarkable resistance to the usual suspects—Napoleon, Hitler, and Obama. Another one complains about present-day poverty and lawlessness. When asked what Zhanna thinks about the debate she replies that she does not think anything, strangely satisfying both men. Still working with the tropes defining the genre since the 1990s, the show is both self-conscious about this engagement and open to altering the rules of the game.

Chicks What Chicks does inherit from the earlier post-Soviet narratives about prostitution is the extensive use of chernukha. Some of the most powerful scenes of the season are also the most disheartening. Thus, the episode in which Liuda gets beaten by the gang of the ultimate villain astonishes by its crude physicality: the shots capturing men urinating on Liuda’s face seem to be coming straight from an unmade Balabanov film. Registering the abundance of chernukha episodes in post-Soviet narratives about prostitution, Borenstein suggests that this excess can be ideologically meaningful since the answer to chernukha in the 90s is not purity, but more chernukha (Borenstein 2008, 96). Whether or not this excess was an ideological choice in Chicks, at the end of the season the show hardly gives the viewers a chance to catch their breath. Featuring a miscarriage, two funerals, two arrests, two rape scenes, a knife fight, a fistfight, a drowning accident, as well as numerous instances of violence and harassment, the show makes one wonder whether continuous loss and humiliation have any redemptive power. Because so many of these events take place in the last two episodes, the aesthetic excess seems almost bordering on sloppy writing.

Chicks Luckily, the show balances chernukha with comic relief. Throughout the season, Oganesian masterfully uses devices of contemporary cringe comedy, a cinematic genre deriving humor from social awkwardness. For instance, Kostia, the father of Zhanna’s son Roma, functions like a typical character of a cringe sitcom. Kind but awkward, Kostia tries his best to restore his relationship with Roma but constantly gets in trouble because of his incongruous behavior. One of the funniest episodes of the show features Kostia delivering a pathetic speech about missing his son while Roma sits right across from him and lip syncs the entire monologue. Another example of a cringe moment takes place when a barman at a juice bar asks if he can try Zhanna’s drink he has just mixed for her. To signal an awkwardly funny context Zhanna stares directly into the camera. The whole scene looks like a sequence from the BBC show Fleabag (2016) based on ‘breaking the fourth wall,’ a device marking a situation as awkward for the audience. And yet, Chicks does not simply translate the device: what looks awkward in the south of Russia (for instance, a sable hitting a man during a Cossack performance) is certainly different from the subject of a cringe comedy set in contemporary London.

Chicks The show’s remarkable cinematography and soundtrack, too, do justice to a specific cultural context of the Russian south. While Chicks is Oganesian’s directorial debut, he has worked extensively in design production. A native of Kabardino-Balkaria, he skillfully renders the beauty of the locale without robbing it of a certain authentic appeal: the camera captures the local market, the Cossacks horse-riding, and the kids using tyres as swimming rings. A distinctive feature of Oganesian’s style is his insistence on the use of golden hour lighting. The whole of the first episode looks like a repetition of Terrence Malick’s challenge in Days of Heaven (1987): whether or not we see the actual sunset, soft light seems to follow the characters wherever they go, enhancing the beauty of the lake scenes and making the sweeping panoramas of golden fields even more picturesque. This visual choice looks especially poetic when underscored by the soundtrack. Oganesian’s choice of music is exceptionally diverse, ranging from Ukrainian indie-pop stars like Luna to British pop bands like London Grammar. The leading theme mixing local tunes with contemporary techno sound was composed by Ivan Dorn.

Chicks The use of music in the show also deserves commentary as Chicks includes a few montage vignettes reminiscent of stand-alone music videos. Thus, one of them features the characters’ ride from a regional hospital after Sveta had a miscarriage. We see the countryside road at dawn from the window of a car driven by Sveta’s brother, the shy policeman Iura (Anton Lapenko). In the previous episodes, Sveta and Iura continuously fought just about everything, but the poignancy of the moment brings the siblings closer. As we hear the lyrics of the song about loss and forgiveness, we see Iura stopping the car and picking a sunflower for his sister. This use of melos underscoring beautiful landscape views and tracking shots almost takes us to the space of melodrama.

Chicks And yet, on every other level the show consciously resists melodramatization. A genre traditionally focused on uncovering the truth and delivering justice, melodrama routinely ends with restoring the original order of things. As film scholar Linda Williams suggests, melodrama is characterized by a “will to force the status quo to yield signs of moral legibility within the limits of the ‘ideologically permissible,’ even as it builds upon genuine social concerns” (Williams 2001, 19). The finale of Chicks seems to stir away precisely from that. Happy for Marina, Sveta, and Liuda (who all manage to break away from their past and find love) and truly devastating for Zhanna (who loses her home, kid, and freedom), the ending professes emphatic ambivalence over any version of the status quo. The season’s finale once again accentuates the complexity of the genre: while comedy allows for a happy ending and the possibility of a “reinvention of the world,” chernukha is predictably asking for tragedy.

The contemporary Russian television scene of the past ten years has been visibly dominated by melodrama. From prestige miniseries like Valerii Todorovkii’s The Thaw (Ottepel’, 2013)and Aleksei Smirnov’s The Garden Ring (Sadovoe kol’tso, 2017), to the lesser known middle-of-the-road productions, melodramatic imagination presuming the imminent restoration of status quo has secured the prime-time on most national channels (a rare exception being popular sitcoms produced for STS). Launched on the Internet platform and balancing between unlikely genre modes, Chicks does not offer the viewer a promise of justice but it does make an argument for change.

Tatiana Efremova
New York University

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Works Cited

Borenstein, Eliot. 2008. Overkill: Sex and Violence in Contemporary Russian Popular Culture. Cornell University Press

Williams, Linda. 2001. Playing the Race Card: Melodramas of Black and White from Uncle Tom to O. J. Simpson. Princeton University Press

Chicks, Russia, 2020
8 episodes,
Director: Eduard Oganesian
Script: Eduard Oganesian, with participation of Nastia Kuznetsova, Anton Kolomeets
Cinematography: Iurii Nikogosov, Mikhail Dement’ev
Costume Design: Elena Kazakevich
Music: Ivan Dorn
Cast: Irina Gorbacheva, Irina Nosova, Alena Mikhailova, Varvara Shmykova, Anton Lapenko, Sergei Gileev, Mikhail Troinik, Steven Thomas Ochsner, Vitalii Kishchenko, Viktoria Tolstoganova
Producer: Ruben Dishdishian, Iuliia Ivanova, Fedor Bondarchuk, Mikhail Vrubel, Denis Gorshkov, Viacheslav Murugov, Aleksandr Andriuschenko, Margarita Popova
Production Company: NMG Studia, Mars Media Entertainment

Eduard Oganesian: Chicks (Chiki, 2020)

reviewed by Tatiana Efremova © 2020

Updated: 2020