Issue 28 (2010)

Igor’ Zaitsev: Hard Labor Vacation (Kanikuly strogogo rezhima, 2009)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2010

kanikulyCan a family-oriented summer comedy “work” if its action takes place in a penal colony and its main protagonists are escaped, murderous recidivists let loose in a children’s camp? Released on multiple screens at the end of August 2009, Hard Labor Vacation was pitched as family entertainment, and is genuinely funny in parts, but it is a most peculiar comedy. It is fuelled by warm-hearted sentiment, a delicate love and a sunny retro homage to Soviet era comedies. And then—unexpectedly—a shocking and violent twist turns this mythical tale into a tragedy punctuated by a hail of bullets. The film seeks to strike a delicate balance between the realistic violence essential for a prison film and a witty, fish-out-of-water tale full of children’s pranks. But the huge twist to the genre, in which the expected optimistic, heroic conclusion is hijacked by a “typically” Russian unhappy ending, redefines the family comedy subgenre as tragicomedy to make the outcome appear plausible for Russian audiences.

kanikulyRussian film comedies have been slowly reemerging as domestic box office success stories after twenty savage, bleak and unfunny years of attempting to escape the dual burden of a trailer-load of taboos and the sticky influence of juvenile toilet humor. The body-switching comedy, Lovey-Dovey (Liubov’-Morkov’, 2007), made $11.6 million; its 2009 sequel earned $17.9m, and the 2008 scatological domestic parody mix, The Best Movie (Samyi luchshii fil’m, 2008), grossed $30m at the box office, validating the mainstream taste for comedy developed on the small screen. Hard Labor Vacation was the third most popular film at the domestic box office, taking in $17.6m. It was the second most profitable film of the year, earning $3.45m after a production budget of some $4-$5m and an advertising budget that was even higher (“Glavnym blokbasterom…”).

After the absurd and original satires of the early perestroika period, the prevailing focus of post-Soviet comedy was on juvenile, scatological and black comedy with a veneer of postmodern knowingness, steb, and the uneasy cheap laughs of barely concealed self-consciousness. Yet the Soviet era classics (Leonid Gaidai, El’dar Riazanov, Georgii Daneliia among others) have remained the benchmarks of quality family comedy. It is therefore surprising that this subgenre of light, funny family entertainment has until now remained underdeveloped. 

kanikulyGet That Girl (Otdamsia v khoroshie ruki, dir. Novik, 2009) is a clear example of playing by the genre rules of family-oriented comedy.  Its treatment of criminal themes is more farcical, teen sexuality is represented as burlesque, and the low-level violence tends towards slapstick in a fast-paced action adventure with a likeable blue-eyed leading young lady. In contrast, Hard Labor Vacation lurches between adult and family entertainment. The prison camp is presented with a naturalistic energy and violence. The celebration of criminal romanticism and prison slang as markers of masculinity prevails. It is only the absurdity of the prisoners’ staging Pushkin’s folk tale in Kabuki style and some uncanny performances that saves the opening scenes from disappearing into prison bleakness. While the purple prose veers elegantly away from coarseness, this is not the daffy criminal underworld of Operation Y and Shurik's Other Adventures (Operatsiia Y i drugie prikliucheniia Shurika, 1965).

kanikulyIn many ways, Hard Labor Vacation looks and sounds like an optimistic comedy with its stock of bright primary colors, a quirky Japanese inspired soundtrack, cheery characters and numerous grotesque performances. As an homage to a series of Soviet era comedies that includes Gentlemen of Fortune (Dzhentl’meny udachi, 1972), The Diamond Arm (Brilliantovaia ruka, 1968) and Welcome, or No Trespassing (Dobro pozhalovat’ ili postoronnim vkhod zapreshchen, 1964) with its setting in a young pioneers camp, there is little to suggest that this film is not set in the past. The retro style is not staged as pastiche, the sentimental relations are not steb; instead we have an absurd situational comedy with hardened criminals able to speak only in prison slang, masquerading as young pioneer camp leaders amidst a camp full of troubled kids.

Hard Labor Vacation is adapted from Andrei Kivinov and Fedor Krestovyi’s novel of the same title (2007). Kivinov worked for a long time as a homicide detective before turning to writing. He is best known for his serialized TV crime dramas Streets of Broken Lights (Ulitsy razbitykh fonarei, 1997-99) and Crushing Force (Uboinaia sila 2000). In contrast, Fedor Krestovyi spent nine years in a penal colony and wrote two books on how to survive there. This unusual collaboration of two men from such opposing backgrounds is at the heart of the film and the source of much of its comedy.

kanikulySumrak (Sergei Bezrukov) is a hardened criminal, having spent the better part of his life in jail. He is now a respected leader in the prison camp, an untouchable, who maintains a major money-making scheme. He is unable to speak in anything other than prison slang; he hates cops and rejects any notion of family life. The prison warden asks for his help in preventing the other prisoners from killing a new inmate, the cop Kol’tsov, so as not to undermine the forthcoming theatrical performance. Kol’tsov (Dmitrii Diuzhev) is a former Chechen War hero who killed one of his corrupt police colleagues and is now a marked man in the prison. He is attacked in an all out brawl and ends up in hospital with Sumrak who was injured during the fracas by the anti-riot forces. Recognizing an army buddy among the security detail, Kol’tsov is able to stage an escape but has to take Sumrak with him. They end up in a young pioneers camp, masquerading as experienced teachers.

kanikulyDespite their innate hatred of one another, these two unlikely partners are forced to cooperate in order to maintain their disguise and to survive the children’s pranks and the charms of the camp leaders. The comedy really begins as they try to preserve their disguise while negotiating the educational needs of the children. Sumrak soon realizes that life in the prison camp is not that different from surviving summer camp and that maintaining control requires similarly tough measures. His eventual success at winning over the children is not matched by his romantic escapades as he tries to woo the head teacher with the help of Kol’tsov. He is in love, but having spent his entire life in prison, doesn’t know how to express it. Prison life was so much easier. But when the identity of the two escapees is revealed, the comedy unexpectedly transforms into a bloodbath.

The promise of a happy ending is rudely stripped away in the denouement. At the very moment when Sumrak places the children’s welfare above his own, a heroic rebirth for which he surely would have been pardoned, he is mercilessly stopped by the film’s extreme genre switch. Actor Sergei Bezrukov asserted, “We have comic scenes and touching melodramatic moments and, of course, love. But the most important thing is that we achieve a Russian “happy ending,” and not an American one where usually everyone gets married. In our country we don’t have these sorts of happy endings. My character gets a ten-year sentence at hard labor, but he does gain a family and love. On the one hand, the ending is sad but on the other it is happy” (Nikolaeva). It is worth noting that the authors, well aware of the significance of their narrative choices and to ensure that all readers would remain satisfied, wrote two endings, “one happy and one realistic”.

kanikulyThis is director Igor’ Zaitsev’s first feature film and he demonstrates an understanding of the dramatic impact of mixing Soviet sentimental youth comedies with contemporary criminal action films. His background is in television crime drama, Esenin (2005), and a war mini-series, Saboteur II: The End of the War (2007). All three projects have been produced by the king of quality popular entertainment, Anatolii Maksimov, who was responsible for such hits as Night Watch (Nochnoi dozor, 2004), Day Watch (Dnevnoi dozor, 2006), Turkish Gambit (Turetskii gambit, 2005), 72 Metres (72 metra, 2004), Irony of Fate: The Continuation (Ironiia sud’by: prodolzhenie, 2007), and Admiral (2008), as well as a string of successful and popular television mini-series. As if that weren’t enough, Dzhanik Faiziev was another power producer on this project commissioned by Konstantin Ernst at Channel One, thereby guaranteeing that the film would be a success with its $5m marketing budget. The quality of the production was trumpeted with the claim “from the makers of Admiral” heavily featured in all the advertising. 

For audiences this film marked the much-awaited reunion of the most popular contemporary criminal double act, Sergei Bezrukov and Dmitrii Diuzhev, since their emergence in the mini-series Brigada (2002) as Belyi and Kosmos. But it is not yet clear if Russian audiences enjoying a summer family comedy with a star-studded cast expect a happy ending or if they retain a taste for bittersweet and complex conclusions that resonate with the whole history of national cinema.

Greg Dolgopolov

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Works Cited

“Glavnym blokbasterom Rossii v 2009 godu stal “Lednikovyi period-3’, Izvestiia 1 February 2010.

Nikolaeva, Maria “Kanikuly strogogo rezhima”, Molodezhnaia gazeta, 20 August 2009, p. 10.

Hard Labor Vacation, Russia 2009
Color, 113 min.
Director: Igor’ Zaitsev
Script: Andrei Kivinov, Fedor Krestovyi
Cinematography: Antoine Vivas-Denisov
Music: Ruslan Muratov
Cast: Dmitrii Diuzhev, Sergei Bezrukov, Alena Babenko, Vladimir Men’shov, Liudmila Poliakova
Producers: Dzhannik Faiziev, Anatolii Maksimov, Nikolai Popov
Production: Direktsiia Kino 

Igor’ Zaitsev: Hard Labor Vacation (Kanikuly strogogo rezhima, 2009)

reviewed by Greg Dolgopolov © 2010

Updated: 25 Mar 10