Aleksandr Khvan: The Guide Dog (Povodyr' , 2007)

reviewed by Fiona Björling © 2008

Aleksandr Khvan, born in 1957 in Cheboksary, graduated from Lev Kulidzhanov and Tat'iana Lioznova's workshop for directors at the All-Union State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1980. In addition to directing, Khvan is also a scriptwriter and actor. He has played minor roles in a number of films and television productions, including the drunken janitor in Oksana Bychkova 's Piter FM (2006).

As a director, Khvan made quite a splash in 1992 with his first full-length feature film Diuba-Diuba, starring Oleg Men'shikov in the main role. The film competed at the 1993 Cannes International Film Festival and has received a fair amount of critical attention. Tat'iana Moskvina has observed that “Experts identified the appearance of a young, European, post-socialist cinema and its characteristic subject: the young hero's forced retreat into the blind alley of criminality and his gradual establishment there of a self-willed sanctuary.” Lidiia Maslova called Diuba-Diuba “our answer to the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink,” which had won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1991. Khvan has directed shorts, medium-length films, and five full features. Since 2000, he has directed films for television, including two serials, most recently Secret Commissions (Sekretnye porucheniia, 2006).

In The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema, Birgit Beumers sums up: “Khvan's films are set in a contemporary, crime-ridden Russia, while his heroes escape into dream worlds, separate from the worlds which they inhabit” (129). Since then Khvan has directed two features, Carmen (2003) and now The Guide Dog. Let us consider whether Beumers' characterization fits these last two films.

The credits of The Guide Dog are projected against the background of an extended panning shot of the Russian countryside, a gentle sweep in subdued colors of lakes, woods, sky, and finally the village, all to the accompaniment of melodious and harmonious orchestral music and the intermittent barking of a dog. The credits over, the music changes to more agitated tones and we hear the sound of cars assembling, and in the windows of these cars see an array of fighting dogs. The dogs and their owners congregate around a small, square fighting rink. In the meantime, and once again with a change of musical leitmotif, the hero of the film, sardonic and immaculately dressed in a long, black leather overcoat and wearing a black wide-brimmed hat, drives stealthily to the scene to take up a concealed position behind his telescopic gun sight. Our hero is a killer, but on this occasion he mishandles his assignment and kills not the owner but the dog. Why he kills the dog rather than the man is not made absolutely clear. Back at the business center where he reports to a forbidding-looking woman, Marina (Oksana Bazilevich), he suggests that he felt sorry for the dogs, but also, more significantly, that he has always been afraid of them: “I'm not afraid of anything in life, but of them I am afraid.” Here is the chink in our killer-hero's armor. But it is not the only chink! Although merely suggested, there is another clue as to why the dog was killed, an intimation that will return at the end of the narrative to provide the film with its only unexpected twist.

The hero of the film is Pavel Shnyrev, played by Igor' Lifanov, who has acted in many films, including Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor; dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2006), and several television series, not least Criminal Petersburg (Banditskii Peterburg; various directors, 2000- ). Pavel is a tough guy who shoots generously and treats most people around him with rough disdain and crude insensitivity. But he is also childish and immature. When he learns from his hospitalized mother, Anna Antonovna (Larisa Malevannaia), that his father—a simple carpenter—is still alive, he decides to escape punishment for the murdered dog and find shelter in the depths of the Russian countryside. Pavel's father, Boria (Vladimir Golovin)—old, blind, and dignified—lives in the country with his dog Chizhik (the eponymous Guide Dog), a young woman Vera (Elena Slatina), her son Dimka (Antonii Krasikov), and a companion Belov (Evgenii Merkur'ev), as well as a goat and a cow. Pavel is uncouth to say the least: he tries to force himself on Vera and frightens her son when he drives Vera's old taxi like a maniac. But he develops some filial devotion to his father and decides to arrange an eye operation for him to regain his sight. Meanwhile Pavel's black-suited pursuers have identified his whereabouts through Anna Antonovna; she escapes from the hospital (miraculously surviving her heart condition), seizes a car, and travels to warn Pavel, with bandits in hot pursuit.

The Guide Dog is framed as a thriller and the ending must not be given away here. Within the film it is possible to identify a couple of themes already familiar in contemporary Russian cinema. The subject of reunion between lost father and lost son has become a standard in post-Soviet Russian cinema. In pursuing this theme, The Guide Dog does not match such films as Pavel Chukhrai's The Thief (Vor, 1997), Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), or Andrei Kravchuk's debut film The Italian (Italianets, 2005). But father-and-son reunions have a broad and deep scope and we shall surely see more of them, some more original than others. Less successful in Khvan's film is the all too pointed comparison between the world of crime and violence, on the one hand, and the humble life of the traditional Russian countryside, on the other. This creates the feeling that we are being shown some kind of tendentious “village cinema” (derevenskoe kino), reminiscent of the village prose of Soviet literature from the 1960s and 1970s. In Lidiia Bobrova's original and moving The Granny (Babusia, 2003), we saw how life in the country disintegrated in the face of the New Russian Way of Life, when there was no one to look after or to help the old granny who had sacrificed her life for her children and their children as long as she had the strength. In The Guide Dog, the traditional way of life is presented from the opposite point of view—as a refuge for escape from the hard life of a professional killer. The same overt contrast was used in Georgii Shengeliia's Flash.ka (Flesh.ka, 2006). There, too, as in Khvan's film, the countryside was presented in idyllic contrast to a world of money deals and meaningless violence. But, however charming and authentic the countryside may appear, the lesson to be learnt in both films is marred by obvious finger-pointing at the moral of the story.

In general, the human characters in the film behave in a rough and scornful manner to each other, with a pervasive, harsh jargon, and this goes not only for Pavel but also for his mother, Anna Antonovna. Even the old rivalry between Boria and Belov is tiresome in its jibing and argument. But there are a few welcome moments of human warmth, as when the woman bus traveler offers Pavel a bottle of water, which he swallows thirstily but without acknowledging her kindness. The woman says to him: “You are not a good person” (nekhoroshii ty chelovek), a remark that Pavel cannot quite forget, responding more than once: “I am a good person” (ia khoroshii). But the rough jargon is not always cruelly intended and the question is whether this is a manner in which Russian men—and modern Russian women—address each other. The exception is Vera and Dimka, country woman and child, who lack this “modern” style and experience real emotions; Vera, we understand, genuinely loves the blind old Boria.

And if humans are hard on each other, what about the animals? What about the guide dog, Chizhik? Animals provide a curious connecting thread throughout the film, a subtle contrast to human beings. The film begins with fighting dogs, of whom Pavel has always been afraid, and ends with Chizhik, silent and loyal, upon whom Pavel finally learns to rely. A momentary scene in the Business Center shows Pavel mimicking the darting movements of a green lizard contained in a stylish aquarium, an image that recurs to him in a dream. In the country, there is no exotic lizard, only age-old domestic animals, a goat and a cow. There is one scene quite out of keeping with the film's photography in general, when the camera follows Chizhik's enthusiastic forage into the woods, his nose (so to speak) close to the ground: we hear the dog's excited panting but do not see him since Chizhik's position is identical to the camera's. The theme of humans and animals is surely significant and almost brings to mind Kira Muratova's films, in which animals appear in sympathetic contrast to human beings—for example, in the caged-dog scene in Asthenic Syndrom (Astenicheskii sindrom, 1990), the stable scenes and racing horses in Enthusiasms (Uvlechen'ia, 1994), or Anna Sergeevna's little lap-dog in The Piano Tuner (Nastroishchik, 2004).

Carmen, Aleksandr Khvan's previous film, was reviewed in KinoKultura by Elena Prokhorova. Apart from the setting on the coast of the Crimea, Prokhorova found the film devoid of the true romance and passion of both Merimée's novella and Bizet's opera, and filled instead with the trappings of New Russian gangsterism—with the hero ”a replica of the many post-Soviet cinematic gangsters: crew cut, leather jacket, superior fighting skills.” Fours years on, it has to be said that The Guide Dog is even less original; the hero even more of a stereotype than was Sergei. Carmen, as an adaptation, has an inbuilt structural tension between original and new setting; its reference to a classical drama of passion and violence naturally creates a counterpoint, against which modern criminality and obsession is pitted. In comparison, the structural contrast of The Guide Dog between modern killer-culture and traditional Russian village life is outright sentimental and holds few surprises.

The Guide Dog has been called “a hard-boiled parable with a human face” (“Ostrosiuzhetnaia pritcha”). If not exquisitely done, parables easily become corny and, therefore, pretentious. Khvan is quoted as having said that when he opened the screenplay and read that the hero was a killer, his first impulse was to slam it shut and never again to return to the killer subject. Let us hope that next time Khvan can resist the thriller genre and try something new!

Fiona Björling
Lund University, Sweden

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit. ”Khvan, Alexander F.” In The BFI Companion to Eastern European and Russian Cinema. Ed. Richard Taylor, Nancy Wood, Julian Graffy and Dina Iordanova. London: BFI, 2000. 129.

Maslova, Lidiia. Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino, 1986-2000. Vol. 3: Kino i kontekst. Ed. Liubov ' Arkus.

Moskvina, Tat'iana. Noveishaia istoriia otechestvennogo kino, 1986-2000. Vol. 3: Kino i kontekst. Ed. Liubov ' Arkus.

”Ostrosiuzhetnaia pritcha o killere s chelovecheskom litsom: Aleksandr Khvan snimaet ‘Povodyria'.” Kul' tura-Portal.Ru.

Prokhorova, Elena. Review of Carmen. KinoKultura 2 (October 2003).

The Guide Dog, Russia, 2007
Color, 99 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Khvan
Screenplay: Arkadii Krasil'shchikov
Cinematography: Andrei Usov, Mikhail Kheifets
Composer: Vitalii Istomin
Cast: Igor' Lifanov, Vladimir Golovin, Larisa Malevannaia, Oksana Bazilevich, Evgenii Merkur'ev, Elena Slatina, Antonii Krasikov.
Producers: Andrei Sigle, Dmitrii Svetozarov
Production: ASDS

Aleksandr Khvan: The Guide Dog (Povodyr' , 2007)

reviewed by Fiona Björling © 2008

Updated: 11 Aug 08