Filipp Iankovskii: The Sword Bearer (Mechenosets, 2006)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris© 2007

A police detachment with army support searches for a fugitive in the forests of the far North. A flashback to a young man with a permanently bandaged right hand travelling on a ferry. A further flashback as the man remembers a key incident in his childhood: a vagrant had attacked a group of children; Sasha, the hero/antihero of the film had fought back with a sword, killing the man. We subsequently learn that in part this is one of a number of ambiguous memories revealed in flashback (an ineffective deferral of the unmasking of his special power) and that Sasha is able to make use of a prosthetic sword that spontaneously grows out of his hand in moments of rage. Unlike many superheroes or supernatural vehicles, the film, while playing with the familiar territory of this genre—memory, rites of passage, forbidden/inaccessible love-object, and the individual versus society binary—makes little attempt to explain Sasha's affliction. The appearance of the sword-arm may be interpreted as a punishment (by whom?) for the reaction by the child to the violence around him, but this is by no means clear. The tradition of “supernatural” powers in popular film and comics rules that this kind of gift is both a blessing and a curse. In Sasha's case, apart from allowing him to save his playmates, it brings him and others around him nothing but pain and death. The initial childhood incident makes him a loner; his attempt to maintain friendship with a school girlfriend results in his beating by her boyfriend, the son of the local mafia boss. Sasha subsequently takes revenge using a scaffolding pole to hospitalize the boyfriend permanently and killing his driver. Pursuit by the mafia boss and his wife ensues in parallel to the police operation to detain him, given greater urgency once Sasha has killed again and again: his estranged father, the shady businessman husband of his love interest (Chulpan Khamatova), and finally the rather luckless and hen-pecked crime boss himself (Aleksei Gorbunov). He is captured and then escapes thanks to Katia, the love-interest. Surrounded by special forces troops in the forests, Katia bleeding to death in front of him, Sasha makes one last use of his special powers to bring down the cops' helicopter, buying him enough time to cradle her in his arms as she passes away. The sun goes down and an overhead extreme zoom-out shot pulls away from the couple until they are specks on the shore of a lake.

He's too dangerous to live among people. He possesses supernatural powers. The hunt is on for him, but woe to the hunter able to find him.

A film with a strapline such as this signals a number of specific Hollywood genre conventions. The Sword Bearer , directed by Filipp Iankovski—whose earlier films include In Motion (V dvizhenii, 2002) and Counselor of State (Statskii sovetnik, 2005)—son of actor Oleg Iankovskii, sets up great expectations in the audience for a horror-cum-pursuit thriller even before they have entered the cinema. The promotional material for the film, billboards, internet site depict a dark, moonlit night, an eerie forest setting against which the central character Sasha, played by Artem Tkachenko, a relative unknown in his first major lead, snarls at the camera like a hunted animal. The television trailer for the film takes no prisoners either, the voice-over barking: “Fear, Pain, Death.” It also reveals Sasha's “supernatural” power—a retractable sword that grows from the palm of his right hand in moments of mortal danger.

The first twenty-five minutes of the film itself, however, reveal a rather more complex and ambitious approach to narrative and genre than indicated in the promotion of the film. Beginning with the denouement of the chase that serves as the main plot-mover (the police have pursued Sasha after his murder of various more-or-less deserving victims), suspense and anxiety in the spectator are successfully achieved, even before we have a real clue as to the secret of the hero (assuming the theater -goer has not seen the spoilers) or his crimes, by some impressive aerial camera shots of the boundless Russian forest and a mysterious underwater sequence in slow-motion. Careful editing allows the frequent cuts to the naturalistic police-procedural aspect of the story not to appear disjointed, even when the odd-couple casting of the two policemen charged with hunting down Sasha strays into comedy. These well-scripted (in the sense of economy) and choreographed (in the sense of naturalism) scenes amplify a sense of anxiety in the face of the unknown threat—if the cops don't really know what they are dealing with then what chance do all these soldiers have, drafted in by helicopter? In a natural progression to more aerial shots, the helplessness of the individual pursuers is highlighted—what, or who, on earth can have destroyed a logging truck and chopped up its load like a heap of broken matchsticks? Although, for significant periods the film comfortably falls in with the supernatural vigilante theme: its many dark and dreary rain-soaked scenes clearly show how indebted it is to the cult, graphic-novel based The Crow (dir. Alex Proyas, 1994): Sasha's initial flight from the scene of his first crime is cross-cut with flashbacks to his childhood and the first sword episode, and makes for an effective deferral of the rather flat, predictable, and linear narrative of fight-flight alternation.

Stark contrast lighting, even in mundane scenes such as a rural post-office, and the imaginative use of strong backlighting to cast a shadow across the main character's face give most of the film a very strong visual mood. Green, yellow, and amber filters lend the objects around Sasha both a sharp, high-contrast materiality and a sense of dream-like reality (underlined by the early use of analepsis/prolepsis), at odds with the naturalistic staging of the film. The young director clearly learnt a lot about look and feel from his work in shooting advertising clips. Director of Photography Marat Adel'shin also comes from that industry and a cursory look at his work reveals a not unproductive addiction to filters and a host of special effects put to stylish use in The Sword Bearer. Among them are stop-motion effects (a slower frame rate used to speed up action), camera shake, lens flare, and some nice extreme close-ups (of soup and various other incidental details).

Artem Tkachenko as Sasha is not required to do much beyond suffer in relative silence, kill, and maim. His performance is as restrained as, for the most part, is the direction. Perfectly cast, he really is able to give himself a most feral, wolf-like appearance. Having mainly played supporting roles in comedies previously he shines here in a pained, gaunt, and shaggy way. Chulpan Khamatova is rather two-dimensional, let down by the particularly unimaginative characterisation of her role. Apart from the rather silly interaction of the mafia couple (Klim and Bella), hardly contributing any sense of menace to the pursuit plot, the cops and helpers (mother, priest) and villains (Katia's husband) are all played with finesse and attention to detail.

The main problem with the film, as alluded to above, is that it sells itself in the mold of “mystery” and “horror,” both of which are at best intermittent or in the former case quickly played out. In the fifty-first minute we see the sword in action for the first time as Sasha kills Katia's husband in self-defence. No amount of fancy camera work can hide the fact that for the audience this is in no way a revelation or the pivotal scene it is meant to be—a number of flashbacks have already given the game away. Due to the multiple pursuers, rather than increasing tension there is a diffusion of possible suspense as various storylines are put on the backburner to reappear later, often after quite a time lapse, while the love-interest intrudes exclusively for far too long, breaking the film in two. While there is some effective "menace," especially in the early part of the film, there is a rather distracting foray into gore in a couple of scenes towards the end. The obviously Frankenstein-like aspects of the story are not explored in any detail (apart from the hunt plot itself): we have a few references to the childhood outcast and an attempt to cut off the offending hand. Sasha clearly has learned to hate most of those around him, but any exploration of his psychological motivation for killing his absent father, for example, is absent. Perhaps a better, if rather generalised contextualisation of this film would be the metaphor it may present of the fatherlessness of post-Soviet youth and the largely futile search for a meaningful expression of masculinity beyond violence (Sasha “answers a blow with a blow” as one review put it). Sasha is not entirely successfully depicted as the victim of his special power; a bit more exploration of his character would have made this a fascinating, rather than a merely stylish and good-looking film.

Jeremy Morris
University of Birmingham

Images from CTB website

The Sword Bearer, Russia, 2006
Color, 108 minutes
Director: Filipp Iankovskii
Scriptwriter: Konstantin Syngaevskii, based n the novel by Evgenii Danilenko
Cinematography: Marat Adel'shin
Art Director: Elena Zhukova
Music: Igor' Vdovin
Cast: Artem Tkachenko, Chulpan Khamatova, Aleksei Gorbunov, Tat'iana Liutaeva, Leonid Gromov, Aleksei Zharkov
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov
Production: CTB Film Company

Filipp Iankovskii: The Sword Bearer (Mechenosets, 2006)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris© 2007

Updated: 29 Jun 07