Valerii Rubinchik: Nanking Landscape (Nankinskii peizazh, 2006)

reviewed by Susan Larsen© 2007

Valerii Rubinchik's Nanking Landscape opens with a spectacular shot of a barren, windswept expanse of damp, trampled sand. As the camera tracks slowly left through swirls of light mist, it reveals the kneeling figures of men clad in the kinds of rags that signify non-Western “native” peoples in historical films with epic aspirations. The men, it seems, are kneeling in homage to a giant figure of Buddha that is slowly being dragged up a nearby slope. The scale of the Buddha is impressive: many small groups of men heave at the ropes that harness it, but the figure does not budge. The Buddha gradually fills the screen as the camera moves in and across its surfaces, in a beautifully calibrated shift from the emptiness of the opening frame to an enigmatic monumentality that the rest of the film tries, but fails to match. As the sound of an off-screen train becomes gradually audible, suggesting that modernity exists somewhere in the background of this nameless landscape, the film cuts to the interior of a train compartment in which a nameless writer (Konstantin Lavronenko) is speaking with an unseen woman about his intention to write a story that will tell “the absolute truth.”

The remainder of the film tells several loosely interwoven stories, in each of which Lavronenko plays the leading role, but the status of each of these stories as fiction, fantasy, dream, or “absolute truth” remains uncertain. In the train scenes, Lavronenko is a newly married writer, returning with his bride to an unnamed country full of painful memories. His vintage attire—jodhpurs, boots, and long coat—and the elaborately costumed Chinese fortune-teller roaming the train's corridor mark the setting of the film as distant in both time and place from present-day Russia and suggest a visual contrast between a vaguely Eastern antiquity and a not-quite-Western colonial modernity. The film then cuts again to 1930s Moscow, where Lavronenko plays Aleksandr, a self-proclaimed expert on ancient Chinese porcelain who cites Mandel'stam, speaks fluent Chinese, and attends the ballet (Don Quixote, not surprisingly), yet who works neither in a museum nor an institute, but in a small shop mending broken dishes. Aleksandr resembles the writer on the train in appearance and speech, yet since Aleksandr is murdered before he can marry his Moscow love interest—the hairdresser Nadia (Dar'ia Moroz), whose voice is also that of the invisible woman in the train—Aleksandr and the writer cannot be the “same” person. The principal event in Aleksandr's life before meeting Nadia was an earlier trip to China, where he claims to have met a British engineer named John (Lavronenko again), who fell in love with Chzhen'tzin (Moroz, in eerie orientalist drag), the daughter of a local temple watchman. In sepia-toned flashbacks, the film depicts John's pursuit of Chzhen'tzin and their elopement, which is thwarted when Chzhen'tzin's father catches them on a bridge and shoots as the lovers dive into the water, from which—in Aleksandr's account—only the pregnant Chzhen'tzin emerges. After Chzhen'tzin gives birth to a daughter who is born bald as the result of her in utero trauma, Aleksandr adopts the child and returns with her to Moscow, where he meets Nadia and a menacing ex-con known only as Baldie (Egor Barinov).

Unlike Aleksandr, Baldie has no obvious doubles in the film, but—as the film hints, and its original script makes explicit—Baldie envies Aleksandr's life or, more precisely, his life story, in the same way that Aleksandr seems to envy John's. Just as John and Aleksandr both pursue Chzhien'tsin, Baldie and Aleksandr both pursue Nadia, and in a drug-induced hallucination Baldie projects himself into Aleksandr's sepia-toned Chinese dream world and escapes with Chzhien'tsin on a train headed in the direction of Nanking (the only time the city is named in the film). The difference between the two sets of romantic rivals is that John and Aleksandr are members of the same, cultured class, while Baldie and Aleksandr are class enemies: Baldie is crafty, violent, and illiterate, while Aleksandr is naive, gentle, and erudite. Only Baldie's life is touched in any way by the institutions of Stalin-era state power: caught having sex with the mistress of a powerful Soviet bureaucrat, Baldie is arrested and imprisoned for treason. Aleksandr, by contrast, shows no interest in or fear of anything outside his narrow private pursuits, despite the fact that his travel abroad and friendship with foreigners would have, in another film, almost certainly resulted in his own arrest and imprisonment. Until he encounters Baldie, Aleksandr moves obliviously and unscathed through the landscape of Moscow circa 1937, a period that—like the Chinese sequences—functions in the film primarily as a source of visual excitement, rather than narrative suspense.

Aleksandr and Baldie immediately fall for Nadia's bright red lips and pale blonde beauty, but they are also fascinated by the Oriental silk print that hangs over her bed, particularly the image of a couple having sex outdoors, a segment of the print to which the camera repeatedly returns and one that is reproduced on the kimono that Aleksandr gives Nadia. This clunky visual motif signals the two men's obsession with sex as an escape into exotic, self-aggrandizing fantasy, especially when each of them reproduces the sexual position of the print's lovers in flashback or dream sequences with Chzhen'tzin. Although never named as such, Nadia's tapestry is the Nanking landscape of the title, the image that propels the film's convoluted romantic plot. In portraying the Moscow love triangle as a competition not simply for Nadia, but for entry into an imaginary “Eastern” fantasy, the antiquity of which offers not history but simply an alternative to the present, the film reaches for depth and instead stumbles in the shallows of tedious stereotypes that conflate femininity with exoticized, unexamined, and primitive otherness.

The film wants to grant the image on the wall a life of its own: “We are not looking at them,” says Aleksandr of the figures on the painted fabric, “they are looking at us.” But the ham-fisted direction of the film's sex scenes reveals not the power of the image, but the filmmakers' inability to get beyond a prurient interest in exotic erotica and female nudity. In contrast to the complex staging of the film's non-sex scenes, in which the camera is almost always shooting through one or more curtains, windowpanes, bed rails, or door frames, and frequently manages to capture the characters as multiple reflections of themselves in strategically placed mirrors, the sex scenes in Nanking Landscape are shot “baldly,” without any of the varied framing devices or nuanced lighting that make the rest of the film such a pleasure to watch. The sex scenes foreground the heroine's bare breasts and simulated sexual ecstasy as she straddles her partner, sometimes wearing an elaborate Chinese headdress, or on one occasion, playing a traditional Chinese stringed instrument while decorously copulating with a modestly draped John/Aleksandr. Only one word comes to mind during scenes like this: Ick.

As the above should indicate, this film overflows with plot, but its details are significant primarily as symptoms of the film's obsession with images, whether dreamt, imagined, hallucinated, painted on fabric, or printed on the pages of books. The film consists less of episodes than of a series of tableaux that are most compelling when they are least vivants . The film's visual and narrative excesses place it in the realm of melodrama, a genre that Linda Williams has analyzed persuasively as “a mode of stylistic and/or emotional excess,” the appeal of which derives from its repetition and attempted resolution of “the quest to return to and discover the origin of the self” (703, 713). Nanking Landscape , however, refuses to resolve the slippery question of its characters' uncertain origins and unstable identities. The impossibility of either reconciling or distinguishing neatly between the stories of the writer on the train, Aleksandr in Moscow, and John in China deny the viewer the certainties of both the devastatingly sad and the improbably happy ending.

The ontological instability of Lavronenko's characters' identities and relationships to one another is underscored by the film's constant shifts from rich color to faded sepia to black-and-white. Although initially it seems as if the film changes hues as it moves from one story line and locale to another, and, perhaps, from the world of the writer to the world of what he may be writing, this distinction, too, collapses by the film's end, as sequences within the same story line shift from black-and-white to color, or from color to sepia and back. The incorporation of grainy 1930s newsreels into the film's black-and-white sequences adds another layer of uncertainty to the viewer's reception of the film, especially when it concludes with a series of scenes that mixes footage from a late 1930s physical culture (fizkul'tura) parade of amateur gymnasts with the slow progress of the Buddha, now strapped down to an open truck bed and accompanied by an official escort of uniformed men on horseback and vintage motorcycles, past the walls of the Kremlin. While the film begins in the land of Merchant-Ivory—a displaced intellectual and his new wife on a train in a foreign land—it ends in a post-Soviet arthouse dreamscape: its final scenes juxtapose the image of a giant Buddha suspended from a Moscow crane with eight concentric circles of female gymnasts slowly collapsing into a Busby Berkeley-esque formation in what appears to be Red Square. A film that opens with men on their knees at the edge of an orientalized precipice closes with women on their backs in the center of Moscow in a Stalinist mandala that adds up to zero. From the edge of the valley where the Buddha was found to the human mandala of the physical culture demonstration, the film flirts with references to mystical knowledge but ultimately finds in them only a void, the “abyss” (bezdna) that the Chinese fortune teller claims her yarrow sticks revealed as the writer's destiny.

The figure of the Buddha is never linked in any way to what passes for the plot of this film. Which is, probably, the point. The Buddha statute, for all its monumental scale and apparent weight, is a floating signifier in this film, a substitute for the monuments to Soviet leaders ubiquitous in so many other contemporary Russian films set in the 1930s. The Buddha indexes monumentality, as an emblem of ungraspable otherness, but its weight—both actual and symbolic (the film's prop assistants fabricated it from papier-mache)—is illusory. The opening scene suggests that the film will tell a story about the excavation and resurrection of the past, its fallen idol simultaneously evoking the blasted Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001 and the toppled statues to Soviet leaders of Moscow in August 1991. But in the film's closing scenes the prone Buddha functions only as a gigantic non sequitur, a visual metonym for the film's fascination with and alienation from times and places that it romanticizes as exotic and unknowable.

The only link between the repeated shots of the giant Buddha and the rest of the film's plot is a line of verse that Aleksandr cites at several points in the film: “Midnight in Moscow, a luxurious Buddhist summer...” The line occurs first as Aleksandr's oblique response to his invisible interlocutor's question, “But who will permit you [to write the whole truth]?” As such, it immediately evokes a comparison between Aleksandr and the line's author, the brilliant modernist poet Osip Mandel'stam, whose arrest, imprisonment, and death in a labor camp in 1938 has become an exemplary story of the heroic artist's martyrdom by an oppressive Soviet state. But the Mandel'stam verse—like the Buddha, the vintage cars, the period songs, and documentary footage that mark the film as “historical”—is only one of many citations in the film, citations that serve not as context for the film's convoluted plot, but as markers of the film's aspirations to arthouse seriousness and its vision of history as pastiche, a post-Soviet version of what Fredric Jameson has called the nostalgia film, a mode of filmmaking in which “the image—the surface sheen of a period fashion reality—is consumed, having been transformed into a visual commodity” ( 130). In its apparent equation of orientalized mysteries with Stalinist enigmas, Nanking Landscape cites multiple pasts, but the hybrid landscapes it creates only gesture towards history, they do not illuminate it.

Susan Larsen
Pomona College

Works Cited

Jameson, Fredric. “On Magic Realism in Film.” In Signatures of the Visible. NY and London: Routledge, 1992. 128-154.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings . Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. Fifth edition. NY: Oxford UP, 1999. 701-715.

Nanking Express, Russia, 2006
Color, 101 minutes
Director: Valerii Rubinchik
Scriptwriter: Andrei Bychkov
Cinematography: Viktor Shestoperov
Art Direction: Irina Alekseeva
Music: from the works of Benjamin Barshai and Ludwig von Beethoven, with additional uncredited popular music
Cast: Konstantin Lavronenko, Dar ' ia Moroz, Egor Barinov, Iui Khan', Iandanè, Marianna Rubinchik, Ol'ga Litvinova, Anastasiia Aravina, Iuliia Koshkina, Aleksandr Mironov
Producer: Aleksandr Potemkin
Production: Kinostudiia “ARK-fil'm” and the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema of the Russian Federation

Valerii Rubinchik: Nanking Landscape (Nankinskii peizazh, 2006)

reviewed by Susan Larsen© 2007

Updated: 11 Apr 07