Issue 63 (2019)

Dmitrii Tiurin: Frontier (Rubezh, 2017)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2019

rubezh Dmitrii Tiurin’s Frontier begins with a garish orange BMW recklessly weaving in and out of traffic as American rap music plays loudly; the audio track alters the music slightly to ensure the viewer realizes that this music was chosen by the inhabitants of the car. The image briefly cuts to a profile of the vehicle, foregrounding it against brightly colored new apartment buildings on the outskirts of St Petersburg. The film’s opening scene acts as a blueprint for the film as a whole: while it is infused throughout with anti-Western propaganda, Tiurin shows his eye for design and cinematography in his choice of camera angle and color palette.

rubezhFrontier tells the story of Misha Shurov (Pavel Priluchnyi), a young, ambitious employee of a construction firm with questionable scruples. As the film opens, Misha and his colleague, Aleksandr, are driving to a construction site to deal with two young activists who are halting construction. The construction zone happens to be the site of a small battle that occurred during World War II; many of the soldiers who were killed there have not yet been properly buried, and the activists are seeking to halt construction. Misha has a tendency throughout the film to follow clichés from Western cinema, and here decides that Liza, the head activist, should have an “accident.” As Liza shows Misha the interior of a bunker, which contains the remains of a man who shares the same last name as Misha, a truck slowly rolls toward the bunker; when it crashes through the roof, Misha suddenly finds himself in World War II.

rubezhTiurin’s World War II scenes are shot hand-held (or mimic hand-held), are tightly edited, and highly textured. The ground is splotched with blue and red, flares are reflected on ice floes, and ash flutters through the air. The film revels in the absurdity of Misha’s tailored suit amidst the Red Army uniforms and battle detritus. In the initial battle scene, Tiurin utilizes a quick pan punctuated by slow motion to reveal his lack of physicality when in World War II: a mortar explodes in slow motion in front of Misha, the camera pans to profile to show the shards of shrapnel fly through his body in slow motion, and then the camera pans to show Misha’s shock as the group of soldiers behind him lie motionless. As the film progresses, the World War II time frame begins to blend with Misha’s present. When Misha returns to the present following the battle on the ice floes, the flood lights over the construction site are tinged purple, recalling the light of the flares.

rubezh These visual devices are motivated by the film’s central conceit: Misha’s deliberate “accident” does not only put Liza into a coma, but Misha too. Following the initial World War II sequence, Misha wakes up and is informed that Liza was gravely injured by the truck. He goes about his business in St. Petersburg, but is haunted by the harm he has caused Liza. He also finds himself compelled to verify that the Shurov in the bunker is not a family relation. Each of Misha’s activities in present-day St. Petersburg is punctuated by the appearance of tornado-like portals that provide a window into Leningrad during the blockade.

As the film progresses, Misha’s plight comes into focus as he uncovers more of his family history and realizes that his grandfather was killed in the war before learning he was going to have a son; this information was contained in a letter written by his grandmother but was never delivered. Misha returns to the hospital, believing that he will be stopping the death of Liza, only to discover that it is his body that is lying in the next room; he has only a few minutes to escape from the time loop by delivering the letter to his grandfather and convincing him to return home. To do so, Misha sacrifices himself in World War II, but wakes up from his coma in the present.

In its story structure, Frontier is a hybrid of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol; while there are no personified Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, the film reveals that Misha’s ancestors have some level of control over the times and places that Misha is sent to. Further, the loop that Misha finds himself trapped within has only a moral purpose: to teach Misha the gravity of his ancestors’ sacrifices and to make him a more selfless citizen. It is unclear whether Misha’s actions had any impact on the real world or not. When he wakes up, his father, who was previously a gruff and cruel man, is shown to be crying for joy. The ancestors that Misha encounters are opaquely visible in the room’s observation window, smiling and waving, but are each shown in their World War II appearance. It is possible that Misha’s actions did indeed save his grandfather, changing his father’s upbringing and resulting in a more caring family, although this would likely result in Misha choosing a different profession. More likely, Misha’s father is reacting to the trauma of nearly losing his son; still, the basis of this character arc is unclear. Thus are the risks of time travel films.

In his review of Tiurin’s film Thirst (Zhazhda, 2013) for KinoKultura <>, Alexandar Mihailovic (2014) finds multiple parallels to video game structures and imagery, as well as direct quotations of the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Similarly, Frontier utilizes imagery from Western blockbuster cinema and video games, although these quotations are not clearly related to the film’s themes. Some connections are purely for entertainment value: in one scene, Misha is barred from visiting the interior of Liza’s hospital room, so he goes to the roof of the hospital, grabs the fire hose at the top of the building and rappels down into Liza’s room à la Die Hard.

A more thematic comparison is the video game Bioshock: Infinite, in which the present setting is the city of Columbia, a fantastical re-creation of mythologized Americana; the main character can utilize portals to any number of future and alternate timelines (these portals are similar to those in Frontier in visual design). As Egor Kholmogorov alludes in his review (2018), the scenes that take place within Leningrad barely so much as hint at the horrors of the blockade; the film also avoids all reference to the political leadership of the Soviet Union at the time. In this way, Tiurin’s Leningrad is akin to the fantastic city of Columbia in its nostalgic return to a better time; unfortunately, while Columbia’s false façade is quickly removed, this image of Leningrad serves as the moral foundation of Frontier.

With all of the care put into its visual design, Frontier puts forward a worldview tinged by propaganda and xenophobia. The young men of the present drive German and American vehicles and listen to Western rap and heavy metal; the young men of the past are heroes who sing as they are being overrun by German soldiers. It is to the film’s credit that its ideology doesn’t fully overwhelm the solid direction and art design; it is still unfortunate that the film is unwilling to explore anything beyond its prescribed moral themes.

Brian Kilgour
University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Works Cited

Mihailovic, Alexandar. 2014. “Thirst,” KinoKultura 43.

Kholmogorov, Egor. 2018. “Na poslednem rubezhe,” Kul’tura 20 February.

Frontier, Russia, 2017
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Dmitrii Tiurin
Script: Aleksandr Shevtsov
DoP: Iurii Korobeinikov
Production Design: Zhanna Pakhomova
Cast: Pavel Priluchnyi, Igor’ Skliar, Semen Treskunov, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Kristina Brodskaia, Aleksandr Korshunov,
Producers: Dzhanik Faiziev, Pavel Stepanov, Rafael Minasbekian, Aleksandr Bondarev
Production: KIT, Central Partnership, IVAN
Release: 28 February 2018

Dmitrii Tiurin: Frontier (Rubezh, 2017)

reviewed by Brian Kilgour © 2019

Updated: 2019