Vladimir Shchegol'kov: One Love in a Million (Odna liubov' na million, 2007); Evgenii Bedarev: Waiting for a Miracle (V ozhidanii chuda, 2007); Ruslan Bal'ttser: Daring Days (Derzkie dni, 2007); Aleksei Pimanov: Three Days in Odessa (Tri dnia v Odesse, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2008

Per Aspera ad Astra: Building an Audience, Building a Nation?

A boy and a girl come into possession of a million counterfeit dollars and are on the run from warring mafia groups. A girl wants to succeed in the advertising business, get a better self image, and meet prince charming; a male fairy comes to the rescue. A boy and his friends design a daring scheme to rescue a girl from a casino owner who, besides flooding the town with counterfeit euros, fancies himself a pirate. A young Chekist eliminates an Odessa gang, exposes a former Nazi collaborator, and finds love. Place of action—a town near water (St. Petersburg, Yalta, Odessa); happy end—required. The mise-en-scène changes, the story doesn't: love and friendship conquer all. Good characters are attractive, romantic, and young. Bad characters are jaded, corrupt—and much older. Within this scheme it matters little that Three Days in Odessa is set in the early post-WWII period; One Love in a Million portrays the chaos of the 1990s; Daring Days and Waiting for a Miracle are set in the computer-enhanced “once upon a time in Russia.”

All four films were released in the spring of 2007 and clearly target young audiences, who constitute the bulk of the movie-going public in Russia. Unlike the filmmakers of the 1990s who shot in the dark, new film producers are audience-savvy. The age group is further diversified and cued to a particular model and specific filmic references. Daring Days is marketed as a “sports comedy for high school students” (Koretskii and Alekhin) and quotes The Fight Club (dir. David Fincher, USA, 1999) and Yamakasi: Les samourais des temps modernes (dirs. Ariel Zeitoun and Julien Seri, France, 2001). One Love in a Million is best suited for male viewers with a flare for black humor and screen violence, hence its connections to chernukha and Dead Man's Bluff (Zhmurki; dir. Aleksei Balabanov, Russia, 2005). Waiting for a Miracle is for those, especially women, who are aspiring for a career in a fashionable profession and quotes The Devil Wears Prada (dir. David Frankel, USA, 2006), Bridget Jones' Diary (dir. Sharon Maguire, USA, 2001), What Women Want (dir. Nancy Meyers, USA, 2000)—as well as a score of feel-good fairy tales. Three Days in Odessa is for “retro” buffs and is modeled on The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed—( Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia ; dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, USSR, 1979)—but also on the many recent TV adaptations of Soviet classics.

Russian cinema is energetically digging for usable models and building up an audience. Film production companies more often than not refer to their new releases as “projects,” and the revival of cinema resembles an industrial production plan. The current process of (re)building the national film industry is somewhat similar to the one that took place in the USSR in the 1930s, with the contemporary process having two major advantages: the ready availability of other media for promotion, special effects, and celebrities; and the more flexible regime of capitalist production, which encourages foreign financing and know-how even amidst Russia's xenophobia and nationalist discourse. Some production companies partner with foreign, usually American, media corporations, while Monumental Pictures—the producer of the commercially successful Waiting for a Miracle, [1] is a local branch of Sony Pictures Entertainment. The lesson for the recovering Russian film industry is to supply what audiences demand: a love story, a simple narrative, calculated suspense, a clear line between good and bad—and lots of music.

Soundtrack is of particular importance in attracting the consumer. On the average, each film uses ten musical tracks and songs (Daring Days has nineteen!), from Russian pop to American rock to European chanson, “packaged” according to the target audience: Brian Eno and The Cure (One Love); Brothers Grim, Moral Codex, Tokio (Waiting for a Miracle); and so forth. Music is ubiquitous, used both diegetically and non-diegetically, often orchestrating the scene. The heroes of One Love in a Million might be being hunted by several vicious mafia groups, but they find time to go to a club and discuss David Bowie vs. King Crimson. The final stand-off between a Caucasian gang, a Petersburg gang, and the famous singer/mafia boss takes place to the accompaniment of a 1978 recording of David Bowie narrating Sergei Prokof'ev's Peter and the Wolf. Web sites of film production companies often provide lists of groups and singers used in the film's soundtrack. This marketing strategy reels in music fans who otherwise might not attend the film.

Another expected ingredient of the films' Hollywoodesque “strong cocktail” (Zavarova) are cameo appearances of TV personalities and media celebrities (for example, Leonid Iakubovich and Sergei Zverev). While most actors are young, some of them have already appeared on TV, like Ekaterina Kopanova, the star of Waiting for a Miracle (TV series Love Is Love ; dir Aleksandr Nazarov, Russia, 2006) and One Love's star Ruslan Kurik (Factory of Stars-3). The films thus seem to work in two modes. On the one hand, they attract the viewers by familiar “glamorous” faces; on the other, they market young actors as part of the “glamorous package.” With the exception of Gosha Kutsenko playing the villain in Daring Days , older film stars are employed in supporting roles (Viktor Sukhorukov, Nina Ruslanova, Tat'iana Vasil'eva). The influence of television is also obvious in KVN-inspired dialogue and mini-skits:[2] “You look like Jennifer Lopes today!”—“What, the same huge butt?”—“No, just as beautiful” or “Thank you sonny! I owe you a Hummer.”—“What Hummer? You promised me a Maserati!”

Three Days in Odessa stands somewhat apart from the other three films: a “historical drama,” with a retro style and Odessa humor, the film seems to target an older, more traditional viewer. But the film's media origins stick out like rabbit ears: the number of actors with significant roles “exceeds sanitary norms, betraying the television nature of the spectacle ” (Maslova). [3] One might add that the casting and styling of actors follows a unified “retro glamour” model; as a result, good looking men in white shirts and dark-haired girls in flower dresses all seem to come from the same incubator. Since most men in the film work for the Ministry of State Security (Ministerstvo Gosudarstvennoi Bezopasnosti, MGB), this doubling is rather sinister. But the effect is unintentional, because the film's M.O. is identical to the other three films': infantilization of the viewer through a pseudo-real media gimmick. At the beginning of the film, the MGB hero tells a legless war veteran: “I can't be happy. There is more blood on my hands than there is dirt on this platform.” Yet at the end of the film he is miraculously healed from his self-doubt, saved by love—and a clip of Valeriia singing a romance with lyrics by Igor' Severianin.

While all four films rely on a melodramatic tone incorporated into other genres, the umbrella genre is fantasy. For this fantasy to work, the light and the dark, heroes and villains are outlined with striking clarity. This probably explains the abundance of scenes set in the dark, from the hold of a ship to a lawyer's office. Three Days in Odessa provides a metaphor for these tales. The main action part of the film takes place in the gangsters' lair—a house the size of a mansion, which (thank you, Meeting Place!) looks like a fairy-tale dungeon. From there, the only way to go is down the Odessa catacombs, where the gang leader keeps his prized possession: an archive of collaborators with the Nazi regime in Romania. The mansion and the catacombs become the grave for the entire gang, and the catacombs' exits are destroyed. The past is buried before heroes emerge to embrace sun, blue sky, and love. The happiness that awaits the heroes is captured in the films' posters, with the slogans directly addressing the viewer: “This sky is only for you!”

This fantasy is culture- and time-specific: no place is better than the new Russia. The heroes of Daring Days belong to a radical youth group “Urban Monkeys” who not only set free captured stray animals, but also protest the presence in the harbor of an American ship by painting the group symbol on the flag. The break with Russia's past is as pronounced. Maia, the heroine of Waiting for a Miracle, imagines her luckless existence (overweight, powerless, lonely) in a KVN-inspired sketch: in a dark Soviet store, a loud saleswoman announces that “the store is running out of happiness.” This old, Soviet-brand, rationed happiness (“Щастье”) becomes obsolete when Maia learns the new Russian values: believe in yourself and all your dreams (from a prestigious job to prince charming) will come true.

Interestingly, money plays little role in the films. The millions of (counterfeit) dollars/euros—as well as the Nazi archive— that set the plots in motion have symbolic value at best. First, the money is dirty; its “legal” owners are the “bad guys,” who are invariably wiped out by the films' ends. Second, money is a goldmine for jokes: “So, what should we do with the million?”—“But it's counterfeit!”—“Well, we're not in America either.” But as far as their day-to-day life goes, characters are in no need of money. They simply have it: for cool clothes, new recordings, clubs and cafes, motorcycles and water-scooters.

Violence gets an interesting twist too. On the one hand, we have spectacular staged fights (Daring Days) and a dozen bodies in Three Days— always bloodless. On the other hand, there is the extreme naturalism of the attempted rape in One Love. The heroine stabs her (Caucasian) attacker first in the eye and, after he pulls the knife out (sic!) and rushes at her again, stabs him in the carotid artery. The bed and the heroine (who for aesthetic effect is wearing a white wedding dress) are literally soaked in blood, while the camera shoots the scene “beautifully” from above. But the shock is dissolved into humor: while a male character is puking at the sight of violence, the girls cheerfully suggest dismembering the body and leaving it in the garbage.

Compared to the new wave of synthetic fantasies, Soviet cinema was decidedly dogmatic and heavy-handed. Soviet propaganda used genre cinema as a vehicle for ideology, stuffing films with messages, whereas the films discussed operate in the reverse mode: they pump ideology—or anything else beyond the basic vocabulary of Danila Bagrov—out of the films. The resulting vacuum is then filled with media stuff as well Soviet genre clichés, disjointed tropes, slogans, and jokes that are finally put to good use. The brew is inoculated further by an admixture of Hollywood's genre recipe.

The influx of films with a happy end fits perfectly into the uplifting rhetoric of Russian nation-building as well. It is within this agenda that one gets an uneasy feeling of witnessing the massive “upbringing” of youth. Upon a closer look then, the setting of the films does matter. From the dangerous missions of clearing the country of traitors (Three Days, released 15 March), through the “accursed” perestroika and the 1990s (One Love, released 5 April) characters board an elektrichka and enter the brave new world of extreme sports and fashion industry (Daring Days, 7 April; Waiting for a Miracle, 3 May) . In this sense, Three Days in Odessa not only fits this youth education project perfectly but outlines its ultimate goal: the adventures of the fearless guys from the MGB and the Kremlin secret service make sure that stale old history is forgotten before the shiny new future is created (see Dust; dir. Sergei Loban, Russia, 2005). Of course, those picky viewers in need of a “message” can always turn to Apocalypse Code (dir. Vadim Shmelev, Russia, 2007) and other projects sponsored by the Foundation for the Support of Patriotic Cinema.

Elena Prokhorova
College of William and Mary

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1] While all four films fared well at the box office, Waiting for a Miracle earned $ 4.5 million in three weeks; see Iarotskii.

2] KVN, or the Club of Merry and Witty ( Klub veselykh i nakhodchivykh), is a TV game show for college students. It first aired in 1961 and has experienced a revival on post-Soviet television and the internet. For reflections on this topic, see, for example, Zavarova; Largina.

3] Maslova refers to Pimanov and Oleg Riaskov's TV series Alexander Garden (2005), which features the two leading actors of Three Days in Odessa.

Works Cited

Iarotskii, Iurii. “Snimaiut vse” Kommersant'' Prilozhenie (6 June 2007).

Koretskii, Vasilii and Kirill Alekhin. “ Derskie dni.” TimeOut Moskva (29 March 2007).

Largina, Nadezhda. “Istoriia po mode sezona: V ozhidanii chuda.” Iskusstvo kino 4 (2007).

Maslova, Lidiia. “Mesto skleiki izmenit' nel'zia.” Kommersant " (16 March 2007).

Zavarova, Nadezhda. “ V ozhidanii chuda: Ne rodis' krasivoi.” Kinokadr (8 April 2007).

Three Days in Odessa, Russia, 2007
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Aleksei Pimanov
Scriptwriters: Aleksei Pimanov, Boris Ianovskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Surkov
Art Design: Oleg Kramorenko
Music: Sergei Bondarenko
Cast: Glafira Tarkhanova, Aleksandr Makogon, Kseniia Kuznetsova, Dmitrii Zhulin, Ol'ga Pogodina, Oleg Maslennikov, Vladimir Kachan, Leonid Iakubovich
Producers: Viktor Nikolaev, Tat'iana Pereverzina, Kerim Kerimov, Aleksei Pimanov, Inna Savel'eva
Production: Tret'ia planeta; with the support of the Federal Security Service

One Love in a Million, Russia, 2007
Color, 100 minutes
Director: Vladimir Shchegol'kov
Scriptwriters: Sergei Osip'ian, Mikhail Novikov, Aleksei Zernov, Valentin Spiridonov
Cinematography: Petr Dukhovskoi
Art Production: Vladimir Trapeznikov
Musical Producer: Oleg Nesterov
Cast: Ruslan Kurik, Lina Mirimskaia, Elena Morozova, Dmitrii Mar'ianov, Vladimir Simonov, Andrei Krasko, Sergei Astakhov, Rustam Urazaev, Aleksandr Berda
Producer: Evgenii Gindilis
Production: Tvindie

Daring Days, Russia, 2007
Color, 84 minutes
Director: Ruslan Bal'ttser
Scriptwriter: Valerii Lerner
Cinematography: Aleksei Lamakh
Art Production: Eduard Gizattullin
Cast: Andrei Dement'ev, Marina Ignatova, Rustam Khaziev, Matvei Zubalevich, Gosha Kutsenko, Viktor Sukhorukov
Producers: Maksim Lagashkin, Armen Adukhanian, Aleksandr Robak, Gevorg Nersisian
Production: Sinemafor and Paradise-Film

Waiting for a Miracle, Russia, 2007
Color, 97 minutes
Director: Evgenii Bedarev
Scriptwriter: Evgenii Bedarev
Cinematography: Maksim Shinkorenko
Cast: Ekaterina Kopanova, Vladimir Krylov, Tat'iana Vasil'eva, Nina Ruslanova, Olesia Sudzilovskaia, Mariia Aronova, Sergei Merzlikin
Producer: Sergei Gribkov
Production: Monumental Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment

Vladimir Shchegol'kov: One Love in a Million (Odna liubov' na million, 2007); Evgenii Bedarev: Waiting for a Miracle (V ozhidanii chuda, 2007); Ruslan Bal'ttser: Daring Days (Derzkie dni, 2007); Aleksei Pimanov: Three Days in Odessa (Tri dnia v Odesse, 2007)

reviewed by Elena Prokhorova © 2008

Updated: 09 Jan 08