Issue 51 (2016)

Aleksandr Voitinskii: The Ghost (Prizrak, 2015)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2016

prizrak_posterThe Ghost brands itself as a family comedy for viewers six years of age and over, and largely delivers a solid genre spectacle, having received mostly positive reviews from the Russian critics. The film boasts sleek special effects and banks on the star power of Fedor Bondarchuk, who plays the leading role of a ghost with unfinished business. The film’s narrative is formulaic: Iurii, an aviation constructor and womanizer, played by Bondarchuk, designs an innovative plane. Right before presenting his project at a flight show he dies in a car accident, inebriated. Discovering that he remains on earth as a ghost, Iurii wants to make sure his project makes it to completion and enlists the help of the only person who can see him, a stuttering nerdy teenager, Vania (played by a rising child star Semen Treskunov). Vania is the only child of an overbearing single mother (played by Kseniia Lavrova-Glinka), and a constant target of ridicule and bullying at his school. Under the guidance of Iurii as a father figure, Vania undergoes a transformation from unpopular nerd to confident teenager who pilots the new plane, saves Iurii’s company from corporate espionage, and wins the heart of the coolest girl in his school.

The film’s supernatural pretext is used mostly as grounds for comedy as Vania communicates with invisible Iurii, talking into empty air and being dragged around by an invisible hand. Here the film provides a clear nod to the film Ghost (Jerry Zucker, 1990) with Patrick Swayze (hinted at by a poster of Dirty Dancing in Vania’s room). The Russian Ghost, however, does not borrow much from the American original, relying on a few superficial aspects, such as the narrative of betrayal and friendship, the repeated gag of cars going through the ghostly body of Iurii, and several comic moments reminiscent of Whoopi Goldberg’s performance in the original film. The Russian film is not interested in the supernatural elements of the story, but rather in the coming-of-age narrative and the exploration of family roles and gender relations. As has become a pattern with recent Russian popular productions, the film eclectically weds Hollywood genre conventions with popular “localized” formats that aim to cater to contemporary Russian sensibilities as filmmakers envision them. Thus, the film eagerly adopts the broad genre of family comedy, one of the most successful Hollywood exports. Like most family comedies it focuses on the family and peer relationships of the young protagonist rather than on the supernatural travails of a ghost. Iurii’s unfinished business to see his plane fly becomes a vehicle for a coming-of-age story. Predictably, the shy boy learns how to be confident and assertive with his peers, and the philandering man learns to value family and loyalty. Both males form a homo-social bond that defines their relationships with each other and with the women in the film, who are given secondary roles and are largely reduced to stereotypes.

prizrakIn my opinion, The Ghost can be looked at in the context of two categories important for post-Soviet cinema. The director of the film, Aleksandr Voitinskii, previously directed the action-thriller Black Lightning (Chernaia molniia, 2009) and an instalment in the New Year’s franchise Six Degrees of Celebration (Elki, 2010). As with the Elki series, Ghost could be considered under the loose category of dobroe kino, “feel-good” or “good-hearted” cinema. Good-hearted cinema, as we have seen it so far in contemporary popular productions, mostly comes out of Timur Bekmambetov’s “overcoat.” It aims to replicate the long-standing cliché about Soviet cinema as humanist, positive and hopeful. At the same time, it positions itself as politically correct, celebrating or gently poking fun at, rather than criticizing, life in today's Russia. Generally, these films tend to exist within the genres of family comedy, romantic comedy or melodrama. In terms of language, good-hearted cinema combines familiar popular genre structures with unsophisticated reassertions of a cliché set of values common in popular cinema everywhere, such as loyalty to friends and family, collective solidarity, rejection of crass materialism, etc. The Ghost combines these feel-good promises with a modern take on what was known in Soviet cinema as shkol'noe kino, or a “school film,” exemplified by such films as Let's Survive Until Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel'nika, dir. Stanislav Rostotskii, 1968), Love and Lies (Vam i ne snilos', dir. Il’ia Frez, 1980), Scarecrow (Chuchelo, dir. Rolan Bykov 1984) and many other popular and critically acclaimed films mostly from the 1970s and 1980s. To this end, the film maintains a focus on Vania and his relationships with his classmates.However, it fails to explicate these relationships in any significant detail, resorting to rather broad strokes. We get to know a bully (played by Aleksei Lukin), who torments Vania, and the queen-bee girl of the school (played by Ani Petrosian), whom Vania is secretly in love with and eventually wins over. However, the schoolchildren are rarely given any depth of character, nor even one synecdochical detail to define them in any meaningful way. The Soviet school film, more often than not, emphasized complex relationships among children, problematized the relations between children and adults, and often adopted a critical stance towards family as a support system for transition into adulthood. The Ghost offers no such complexities. The relationships among the school children are rudimentary and do not move beyond stereotypical peg-holed roles, while the real family relations are substituted with a surrogate fantasy bond that the boy forms with a male authority figure. And most troubling of all is the fact that the transition into adulthood in the film is defined entirely in terms of aggressive masculinity or machismo, to put it simply.

prizrakAs a Hollywood-style family comedy The Ghost is a well-shot film that delivers all sorts of fun gags, moments of danger and suspense, and other cool things meant to attract specifically a young male audience. Designing and piloting a plane, for example, is presented in the film as an exclusively masculine endeavor. However, the androcentric world of the film and its unabashed misogyny are problematic and are, perhaps, symptomatic of Russian popular films' representations of women. It is not necessarily the promotion of traditional patriarchal gender roles that might rub a feminist viewer the wrong way but rather the film's assertion that family values must be exclusively couched in aggressive masculinity, accessorizing women and reducing them to shockingly primitive stereotypes. Fedor Bondarchuk is presented in the film as sexy eye-candy, which makes one wonder why this, along with a drunken scene and a sexual foreplay scene, occurs in a “family” film. Iurii’s ghost wanders around almost bare-chested in a suggestively unbuttoned shirt, and he is barefoot, which adds to his relaxed, confident image rather than creating a source of comic relief. It should be noted that the ghostly protagonist is rarely a subject of the film's screwball comedy; his image is that of a cultivated macho man that comedy must not undermine. His chief role is to replace a missing father figure in Vania’s life and to lead him through the initiation to manhood. This initiation involves, for example, learning to pilot a plane rather than to ballroom dance, as boy-Vania does, to make risky decisions in distressing situations, and to disobey the controlling mother.

prizrakMost importantly, the focal point of Vania’s emerging masculinity is what Iurii teaches him in regard to the treatment of women. To court the coolest girl in the school Iurii advises hapless Vania on a series of wooing techniques that could be best described as manipulative and aggressive. Not surprisingly, they work. Vania takes charge, loses his stutter, and confesses his love for the girl publicly, this time teaching playboy Iurii the value of heartfelt emotion, and softening the callous view on relationships previously espoused by the film. Not that it helps much. The women in the film are a parade of clichés, and like the “pre-manhood,” and therefore feminine, Vania, they are often the butts of jokes. In the beginning of the film we are introduced to a French journalist (played by Sof'ia Raizman), whose sole narrative purpose is to be clueless (cue the accent) and seductive. Iurii crashes his car while driving to a date with the journalist, suggesting that, while macho sexuality embodied by Bondarchuk’s hero is undeniably attractive, matrimony is still the desirable outcome. Iurii's domestic partner (played by Anna Antonova), while technically his boss, displays nothing but docile care and longing for domesticity throughout most of the film. For example, she tries to convince Iurii to stay home and watch TV with her on the night of his death. And when Iurii visits her as a ghost, we see a close up of her sad face, as she leans over to pick up fallen and broken groceries, a reminder of her unrealized domestic dream. Vania’s teenage love interest, as other kids at the school, is not a well-developed character. She mostly follows the lead of either her boyfriend, who is Vania’s chief tormentor, or Vania, when he successfully courts her. Finally, Vania’s mother is overbearing and comical, unable to provide her son with a proper initiation into the adult world. She is in fact almost solely responsible for his marginalization at school, insisting on dance lessons, controlling what he wears and sewing a tag on his backpack as though he were five. As the rejoicing mother sees Vania transform into a strong independent male, she keeps saying that it is “her genes” that really pulled through for him, and we, as viewers, realize how sorely mistaken she is. The film suggests that even the ghost of a “real man” is better for the teenager than a single mother.

In short, women in the film are instrumental objects of male desires, lacking agency and any character development; even in a non-traditional role, such as the head of a company, they are preoccupied with domesticity and men's comfort; and, even if given a shot at domesticity, they are incapable of doing the family “thing” right. Although The Ghost is a family-oriented “good-hearted” comedy that strives to teach boys how to be men, no amount of special effects or comic gags can mitigate the damage from its lesson in misogyny. As Valerie Sperling points out in her recent book (2014), sexualized aggressive masculinity is part of a broader political discourse, and a strategy of legitimization in Russian politics today. In cinema, the choice to conform to this aggressive version of masculinity is endorsed by popular productions, such as this one, that align themselves with the “patriotic blockbuster” or “feel-good” cinema trends. Such alignments, whether the films in question want it or not, are not simply misogynistic and heteronormative, but also inherently political.

Volha Isakava
Central Washington University

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Works Cited

Sperling, Valerie. 2014. Sex, Politics and Putin. Oxford UP.

The Ghost, Russia 2015
Color, 114 minutes
Director: Aleksandr Voitinskii
Script: Oleg Malovichko, Andrei Zolotarev
Cinematography: Mikhail Milashin
Production Design: Elena Travkina
Sound: Ivan Burliaev, Maksim Koshevarov
Editing: Aleksandr Andriushchenko
Cast: Fedor Bondarchuk, Semen Treskunov, Ian Tsapnik, Anna Antonova, Igor' Ugol'nikov, Kseniia Lavrova-Glinka, Sof'ia Raizman, Ani Petrosian, Aleksei Lukin
Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov, Aleksandr Voitinskii
Production: CTB

Aleksandr Voitinskii: The Ghost (Prizrak, 2015)

reviewed by Volha Isakava© 2016

Updated: 02 Jan 16