Friday, February 20, 2015


Leviathan (Левиафан)

Leviathan official site Depicting human suffering often results great cinema. If the suffering is not due to a nature disaster, a war, or a religion, but due to government corruption and bureaucracy, it provokes more anger and despair with the audience and more irritation with the authority. That doesn't explain the irony about acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's (Андре́й Звя́гинцев) latest gripping film "Leviathan" (Левиафан | Russia 2014 | in Russian | 141 min.). Its bleak story about a working family's struggle to hang on with their livelihood is a sharp critique to the status quo of Russia's corrupted local government system. Yet, the film is partially financed by the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation, and it's selected as the Russia's entry for the Oscar for best foreign-language film.

The film opens with impeccably framed seashore of Barents Sea in Northern Russia, while Philip Glass's unsettling music score is played in the background. When the music stops, we see a modest home overlooking the sea where abandoned shipwrecks lying around. This is the home of hot-tempered mechanics Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov Алексей Серебряков) who lives with his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova Елена Лядова) and his teenage son Roman (Sergey Pokhodaev Сергей Походаев) from his first wife. This piece of property also becomes the prey of the corrupted Mayor Vadim Shelevyat (Roman Madianov Роман Мадянов) who wants to build a mansion for himself at this prime location.

In order to fight with the Mayor, Kolya seeks help from his childhood friend Dmitri (Dmitriy Seleznyov Влади́мир Вдовиче́нков) who is a lawyer from Moscow. But during a comical court proceeding, Kolya learns the inevitable that he is no match in combating the unfair system. To make the matter worse, not only he is going to lose the house that his family calls home for generations, but also he is going to face more tragedy in his life.

Leviathan Official Site

In his forth feature, Andrey Zvyagintsev straightforwardly tells a sad story with plenty black humor. It's a sharp contrast to his previous films because this film makes a clear social commentary jabbing at the current Russian society while his previous films kept certain distance from Russia's reality. It pokes fun at flawed justice system and vents the outrage at the grim outlook for ordinary citizens.

I was completely awestruck by Andrey Zvyagintsev's amazing directional debut "The Return" (Возвращение 2003) and I was captivated by his engrossing story in "Elena" (2011). Although I am less overwhelmed by "Leviathan," I am both surprised and impressed when the film unflinchingly zooms in people's lives in today's Russia. Its social relevance and sarcastic tone makes me wonder if Andrey Zvyagintsev was drinking vodka with Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) all night long before he made this film. The difference is that Andrey Zvyagintsev's film gets selected to represent Russia in the Oscar race, while Jia's "A Touch of Sin" (天注定 2013) cannot be shown in China.

Speaking of vodka, that transparent liquor appears almost in every scene in the film and it is drunk by almost every character, heavily and absurdly. While the vodka creates plenty comic moments, it has less effect on the storytelling than on the bodies of those characters. If I were Russian I would be offended by the stereotype portrait of the heavy drinking tradition in Russia. The subplot about Dmitri is also unfortunate and unconvincing.

Despite the minor flaws, the film achievement is remarkable and its story is devastating. Its striking imagery will linger in your head long than the whale bones on the seashore.

"Leviathan," a Sony Pictures Classics release, opens on Friday, January 20, 2015 in San Francisco Bay Area, and it will win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film on Sunday, January 22, 2015.

(Well, I was wrong, it didn't win.)

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