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Dzhanik Faiziev, Turkish Gambit [Turetskii gambit] (2005)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova and Alexander Prokhorov©2005


Dzhanik Faiziev’s action-adventure feature, Turkish Gambit, set a new benchmark for the entire Russian film industry by earning $19 million and becoming the highest-grossing picture in post-communist Russia. Released in February 2005 on 364 screens, the film took the box office by storm in the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States. As Faiziev himself put it: “Turkish Gambit is the first Russian film in today’s cinema made for very broad audiences. The age span of people who watched our film ranges from 12 to 60 years of age. Even those who haven’t been out to movie-theaters for more than twenty years watched this film.”[1]  Turkish Gambit certainly fulfilled its creators’ boldest expectations.

Produced by the powerful Channel One of Russian television and Nikita Mikhalkov’s Studio TriTe, Turkish Gambit follows European models, with television supporting national film production. In the case of Faiziev’s new feature, Channel One not only produced the film but also provided a large-scale advertising campaign that guaranteed the picture’s success and star status for the film’s young leads, Egor Beroev in the role of Erast Fandorin and Olga Krasko as Varvara Suvorova. Television launched Faiziev’s own career as well; he produced such popular series as Old Songs about Main Things-2 (1997) and Like Yesterday (Namedni, 1997), and is currently running all of Channel One’s film production. Not surprisingly, Turkish Gambit was released in two versions: a two-hour long feature film and a four-episode, four-hour-long television mini-series. 

Turkish Gambit is based on Boris Akunin’s spy novel about the super sleuth Erast Fandorin. In this second novel of the series about Russia’s premier detective, Fandorin joins the Russian imperial army in its 1877 campaign against Turks in the Balkans. A mole disrupts the Russian army’s operations and Fandorin is dispatched to uncover the spy. Akunin wrote the screenplay and prepared several surprises for his faithful fans. The film and the novel have different endings. And Faiziev and Akunin created a new villain for the film, Ismail-Bei (Gosha Kutsenko) to the delight of Kutsenko’s numerous fans. When a journalist asked Faiziev why this character appeared in the film, he responded that he had never planned to make a film adaptation that blindly followed the novel’s narrative.[2]  Instead, he claims to have made an action-adventure film based on Akunin’s novel. Following the logic of the action picture, the filmmaker needed the constant visual presence of a major villain. While viewers do not know who the mole is, they see Ismail-Bei until his eventual death toward the film’s end, right before Fandorin uncovers the Turkish mole. Despite multiple changes to the storyline, the script is quite faithful to the novel. All of Fandorin’s suspects are in place; none of the plot lines are omitted. 

The filmmakers play with viewers’ expectations and genre conventions assuming that many Russians have read Akunin’s novel. The film teases viewers by visually foregrounding D’Hevrais (Didier Bienaime), the mole in the novel, but eventually cheats their expectations. Faiziev and Akunin treat the film’s narrative playfully and let the cinematic spy kill the character who was the spy in the literary source. The filmmakers not only replace the fake Frenchman D’Hevrais with the fake Russian Perepelkin as the elusive Anvar-efendi, but also attune the ending to genre conventions. Perepelkin-Anvar’s final, single-handed combat with Fandorin and his death at Varia’s hand (both absent from the novel) provide logical closure to the action film. And it is quite fitting that Varia uses a bar of gold as the lethal weapon; for the viewer, greed is the only possible explanation for Perepelkin’s treason. The original efendi’s motivation was more ideological and certainly a lot spicier: to stop the barbaric Russians, with their imperial appetites, from spreading chaos in Europe.

The unwritten rules of a commercial blockbuster apparently stimulated the crew to make the film as lightweight as possible. Gone are Akunin’s historical digressions, as well as Varia’s feminism and political radicalism, which are treated with irony in the novel. In the film, their absence leaves gaping holes in explaining her swings from coquetry to coldness, from “feminine” weakness to daredevil sallies behind enemy lines. Although Krasko’s acting is not half bad, script inconsistencies make Varia an incarnation of women’s inconstant and fickle nature. Moreover, her ambiguous relationship with Fandorin smacks of a Harlequin romance. While such cine-misogyny would be viewed as a flaw in a serious historical drama, it perfectly fits the conservative ideology of an action-adventure.

Turkish Gambit’s design relies on striking color contrasts. The opening sequence is visually the best: yellow and green sunflowers ripped to pieces by shots and inundated by the blue-and-red-clad Turkish troops in pursuit of escaped prisoners. This 5-minute sequence is also the only silent part of the loquacious movie. The professional camera work of Andrei Zhegalov and set designs of Vladimir Svetozarov underscore the film’s bright palette and furnish the film with a crisp picture unusual for recent Russian cinema. In “genteel” scenes at the journalists’ club or at Lukan’s Bucharest residence, this visual crispness creates an aura of nobility and imperial nostalgia, so in demand in contemporary Russia. Action scenes, however, acquire a cartoonish quality, highlighted by computer animation shots of spiraling bullets and falling cannonballs. Bodies burst into pieces, just like sunflowers that are fragmented by the gunfire. Faiziev does not find this cartoon-like picture awkward claiming that he consciously made “an animation feature for adults” (mul'tik dlia vzroslykh; Kurik). Computer Generated Imaging simply lays bare the device and blurs the border between action-adventure and animation. Faiziev says that the problem was to incorporate Fandorin’s deductive moments, originating from the spy plot, into the action film vernacular. The solution was to represent the thinking process through computer animated motion. In their shameless visual appeal and illusionism, these sequences evoke the trick cinematography of Georges Meliès. In this respect the film’s authentic setting—it was shot in Bulgaria and Turkey—has little significance beyond the un-Russian blue sky: it is all special effects anyway.

The film’s aggressive promotion, its $4 million budget, and the star cast only partially account for the fact that of the three Akunin adaptations to date―Azazel' (Aleksandr Adabashian, 2002 [TV]) and Counselor of State (dir. Filipp Iankovskii, 2005),―only Turkish Gambit became a real blockbuster. The historical, yet topical, war plays a major role in securing viewers’ sympathies as well and provides an answer to some critics’ complaint that the film so consistently “simplifies” Akunin that it never touches on the issue of why Russia was fighting Turkey in 1877. [3] As long as Russia is fighting Muslim separatists in Chechnya now, no Russian viewer needs an explanation about why Russians fought treacherous Turks in Bulgaria then. There might be some truth in a reviewer’s assertion that with Turkish Gambit Russia has finally acquired “mainstream” cinema. [4] If Turkish Gambit is, in fact, mainstream cinema, it would have made more sense to cut the closing melodrama at the train station and to end the film with Varia’s anxious question: “Who won?” and the heartwarming Russian voice from the Istanbul street: “Where the hell are you going, motherfucker!” [Ty kuda presh', iadrena mat']. What indeed can be more appealing than a one-liner from a computer-age patriotic woodcut?

Elena Prokhorova, University of Richmond
and
Alexander Prokhorov, College of William and Mary


Turkish Gambit, Russia, 2005
Color, 128 min
Director: Dzhanik Faiziev
Screenplay: Boris Akunin
Cinematography: Andrei Zhegalov
Set Design: Vladimir Svetozarov
Cast: Egor Beroev, Olga Krasko, Aleksandr Baluev, Dmitrii Pevtsov, Aleksei Gus'kov, Iurii Kutsenko, Didier Bienaimé, Viktor Verzhbitsky
Producers: Konstantin Ernst, Anatolii Maksimov, Leonid Vereshchagin
Production: Channel One and Studio TriTe


Endnotes

1] Elena Maslova “Interview with Janik Faiziev. Turkish Gambit Storms Box office.” Russian Film Business Today. 9A (80A), 11-22 May 2005. 

2] Elena Kurik. “Dzanik Faiziev. Interview online.” 

3]‘Nash otvet Gollivudu’ nomer 2.” 

4]Detective‘Turetskii gambit’ ”.

Dzhanik Faiziev, Turkish Gambit [Turetskii gambit] (2005)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova and Alexander Prokhorov©2005

09/10/05