Thursday, May 07, 2020

252. Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy’s debut feature film “Chetyre” (4) (2004), based on a script by post-modern author/dramatist Vladimir Sorokin: A perplexing, absurdist, and depressing study of contemporary, post-glasnost Russia

“Exhausted by hunger, he ate in secret. He thought he was stealing food; but that was better than stealing from strangers”  
-- Narrator of a TV program on dogs, viewed by Oleg in the film 4
The film 4 was made in 2004 and won 11 major film awards across Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Khrzhanovskiy’s  debut film 4 is no ordinary feature film. Four stray dogs on a Moscow street at night open the film. Four persons (3 customers and a bartender) accidentally meet at a bar late night. The three drinkers (Marina, a female prostitute; Vladimir, a male piano tuner/musician; and Oleg, a male wholesale-meat supplier) construct their alternate fictional professions as they consume alcohol and attempt connecting with each other. 

Bar scene: (left to right) Vladimir, Marina and Oleg

As the film progresses, we realize Marina is one of 4 sisters. Marina (played by actress Marina Vovchenko) meets up with two of her other sisters (possibly played by her real life sisters, if we go by their surnames and physical similarity) in her village. The fourth sister has just passed away. Marina travels with three strangers in a train compartment (they too add up to four). Asked by one of her co-passengers about where she is heading, she responds “To shoot a grenade launcher—my psychiatrist’s advice to clear the head. It helps against suicide.” More allegories, more symbols, more absurd connections. The person who asked her the question returns much later in the film as a thief stealing a watch from a car-accident site.

At the early bar sequence, the conversation among the three drinkers are about dogs and humans, after Marina curses a man who has run over a dog at night. “A dog’s life is shit,” says one. “Man’s life is shit” is the terse response. “A dog’s life is comfortable, actually” is a follow-up comment from Oleg, the wholesale-meat seller. “Hit a dog on the road and bad luck follows you; hit a man and good luck follows,’’ adds Oleg. “Dogs are closer to God,” says Vladimir, implying thereby that humans are comparatively less close to God.

"Dogs are closer to God"
Four stray dogs on a Moscow street open the film

Dogs are everywhere, following all the characters--at the meat factory, at the village to eat up the dolls (made up of chewed bread!), following the thief who robs a watch off the hand of Oleg, who has just minutes ago crashed his car in an effort to save a stray dog crossing the road (Oleg, at the bar scene earlierin the film, had professed his love for dogs, constituting an Aristotelian structural balance to end the meandering script of 4).

There is a Muslim, who sells meat of bizarre round piglets (genetically modified?) and kicks a dog (both animals that devout Muslims avoid dealing with) and is promptly reprimanded for his action by the non-Muslim Oleg, who loves dogs and watches dog programs on TV at home, surrounded by spic and span dog statues and stuffed dogs,.

Four planes take off with prisoners (including Valdimir) forcibly trained to be soldiers to fight at some unknown frontier. What’s this strange fascination with the number 4? In one of the comments made at the bar, Vladimir ironically states that 4 legs lend stability to a table.

Old women of the village mourn at the fresh grave
of Marina's sister

Marina’s village reminds one of the derelict world of Tarkovsky's film Stalker. The population of the village is strange. It is surrounded by barbed wires and caution notices warning trespassers of high-tension electrical cables. But Marina knows how to navigate those barriers. The village seems to have survived in a time warp, complete with imposing but closed Russian orthodox churches and where the poor aged inhabitants sing hymns at burials and sell weird dolls to survive. There is just one male in the village, otherwise populated by females. Most of the women are toothless and old. Even in their advanced age, they talk of sex and continue to be proud of their breasts, when inebriate with vodka. The only two young female inhabitants of the village are Marina’s siblings and one of them has just died and had been adept at making the dolls.  En route to her village, Marina passes a truck/shop storing the genetically modified round piglets. (Everything in the film script is connected, if you are observant!) The odd male in the all-female village commits suicide after perfecting the faces of the last four dolls, using up all his savings. 

There is a strange connect between the muddy exteriors of Marina’s village and the mysterious mud that gathers on Moscow streets as though there has been a recent flood that require truck-based bulldozers to clear the detritus.

The sole male inhabitant of the village
carry four unfinished dolls (note the mud)

Thus the film 4 presents you with animals who behave like humans and human beings who behave like animals. Some of the animals are alive, others are now dead carcasses. And some of the carcasses are possibly the result of banned/mad/state-supported scientific experiments to be sold as prized meat to high-end restaurants that exist but do not seem to have much patronage/clientele.

Just a few minutes into the film and any intelligent viewer will know that the tale is a political allegory of Russia today. 

As this writer reviews the film 4 during the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, the shrill video messages of Wuhan residents pleading for global help are recalled. In 4, stray dogs are suddenly disturbed by sudden arrival of earth-moving equipment to redo a Moscow street at night that did not seem to require major repairs or reconstruction. The dogs and humans in Russia (and now in Wuhan, China) are at the mercy of forces that are incomprehensible to the respective denizens. And yet life trudges on, in an absurdist reality that reminds you of Ionesco's plays.

Vladimir, who was observing fishes, turtles and strange water eels in glass water-tanks, in the film 4 is picked up by the police off the street and later interned in a prison camp and forcibly re-trained to be a soldier to be packed off like hundreds of others to fight an unknown national enemy in 4 huge aircrafts.

The well-to-do Oleg has a father Misha who was/is a scientist constantly worried about dangerous microbes and is a fanatic for health safety to the extent of washing his garbage cans each day. Misha loves his dead wife and wants to visit his wife’s grave with his son Oleg. Misha is a scientist who firmly believes in the power of hell. This is where Vladimir Sorokin’s contribution surfaces as the novelist/playwright/scriptwriter is apparently a devout Christian, getting baptized at 25 and refusing to join the Komsomol, the youth communist cadre. Sorokin subsequently won the People’s Booker prize and other international prizes with his works translated from Russian into more than 20 languages. Sorokin’s tongue-in-cheek aside in 4 that perhaps only die-hard chess enthusiasts will spot includes the names of famous Russian chess players Bronstein and Lukin, dropped nonchalantly by Vladmir at the bar scene as the names of famous genetic engineering scientists in the tale he fabricates.

There are visuals of streets getting cleaned in 4 by water-spraying trucks and bulldozers clearing mud. At the end of the film, you do see a cleaned-up road. But ironically who is using this clean facility? A dirty thief and a stray dog. No detail in this film is non-allegorical. When the village women eat and relish the meat of a dead pig, there is food for thought. When the pig’s head is thrown into a pig sty for other pigs to hog, there is food for thought. When dolls made of chewed bread are eaten by stray dogs, there is food for thought.

These are just some fascinating elements of the film (script by Vladimir Sorokin). Does the film belong to the director Ilya Khrzhanovskiy (his debut feature film) or to Sorokin or to both? The film is audacious and critical of modern Russia, reminding one at times of Joseph Heller's book Catch 22, subsequently made into a feature film by director Mike Nichols. Somewhere, the mad script of 4 comes together. It reminds one of another nihilistic recent debut film--this time from China—Bo Hu's An Elephant Sitting Still (2018). Only Bo Hu committed suicide soon after making his film, while Khrzhanovskiy has finally made his second film. The film 4 could well have had an alternate fitting title “4 dogs not sitting still," on the lines of Bo Hu’s film.

P.S.  Bo Hu’s debut film An Elephant Sitting Still (2018), a film critical of modern China was reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the Chinese film in this post-script to access the review.). The film 4 won awards at the Antalya Golden Orange film festival in Turkey (Best Director), the Athens international film festival in Greece (City of Athens award), the Buenos Aires international film festival of independent cinema in Argentina (Best Director), the Golden Apricot Yerevan international film festival in Armenia (Jury Special Prize), Rotterdam international film festival in the Netherlands (Golden Cactus and Tiger awards), Seattle international film festival in USA (New Directors Showcase award), Sochi Open Russian film festival in Russia (Jury Special Prize), Titanic international film festival in Budapest, Hungary (Breaking Waves award), Transilvania international film festival in Romania (Transilvania trophy and Best Cinematography) and Valdiva international film festival in Chile (Best Soundtrack). Some 15 years later, the film’s director Khrzhanovskiy has made his second ambitious and controversial feature film DAU in 2019. The DAU film project also has writer Sorokin of 4 to prop up Khrzhanovskiy.