By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Belarus’ Oscar submission Crystal Swan is a charming film that captures the irony and frustration of post-communist youth. Both empowering and amusing, this is something you should definitely see at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival this week.
Directed by Darya Zhuk, Crystal Swan focuses on Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a law student who would rather move to the U.S. and pursue a career as a house music DJ than stay in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, working in her mother’s heritage museum.
This film is thoroughly enjoyable and reminded me of some of the older Czech films that captured the country’s quirky village life irony and post-communist attitude. Zhuk’s debut film, which opened the East of the West competition at KVIFF this weekend, is a love letter to the youth of the ’90s, and their struggle to escape a country that had no foreseeable future, despite the sudden influx of western culture, and of course music.
Velya, with her electric blue wig and noticeably colourful get-up is gawked at and ridiculed on public transport, and then there’s her techno-worshipping boyfriend who looks like a raver straight out of Trainspotting, so it goes without saying that Velya doesn’t exactly fit in with her mother’s museum, nor does she listen to her “one should stay in her motherland” advice. Velya’s love of clubbing and music inspires her to move to Chicago (the birthplace of house), but strict border control holds her back. So, Velya puts a fake workplace phone number on her application form, but is then forced to track down the family on the other end when the embassy wants to call and confirm her employment.
Zhuk’s portrayal of the tiny village ‘Crystal’ and the family reminded me of Czech films like Pelíšky and Slunce, seno a pár facek. There’s a focus on that small town/village mentality and emphasis on class difference and of course envy. Velya feels the need to lie about her mother being sick in order to give a ‘justifiable’ excuse about escaping to the U.S. The family, including eldest soon-to-be-married son Stepan (Ivan Mulin), are perfectly happy where they are and spend their days attending to jobs that Velya finds trivial and nonsensical – there’s a particularly memorable scene involving fish and dynamite.
There are some real laugh-out-loud moments, especially when we’re thrown into Stepan’s uber-traditional Belarusian wedding where vodka is the poison of choice, but the film takes a more dramatic turn in the third act when Zhuk confronts the viewer with scenes of rape and abuse. It seems like a political statement, and a just one at that, but it also appears to be a little out-of-the-blue, considering the film’s prior tone which was a lot more comedic.
Crystal Swan is an impressive debut from Zhuk, who actually made the move to the U.S. herself years ago. It’s extremely relatable, especially to Eastern European audiences, and it’s outright hilarious at times. Nasibullina brings an energetic and driven character to the table with Velya, and the film has lush production design adhering to that ‘panelák’ vibe of post-soviet architecture, a well as that glorious and colourful vintage tack plastered all over the walls and furniture – great art direction by Andrey Tolstik.
I was a little disappointed by the amount of house music though. Thought there could’ve been a bit more to maintain that club rhythm from the first half of the film. Director Darya Zhuk is planning on starting a Belarusian New Wave, and she might just pull it off.
Photos: Film Servis Festival Karlovy Vary