In the business of theology it is hard not to be controversial - Jurgen Moltmann

Saturday, 30 October 2004

Film Stuff: The Return - a parable on Hong Kong from Russia!

The Return (dir. Andry Zvyaginstev, Russia 2003)
§ Winner of Golden Lion Awards for Best Film and Best First Film, Venice 2003
§ Viewed @ Cameo @£1

Two teenagers, Andrey and Ivan, suddenly encounter the home-coming of their father, who has left home for an unknown reason for 12 years. The day following his return, the father (who is unnamed in the film) brings the two sons on a camping trip, which turns out to be not only emotionally intense but tragic in outcome.
Ivan, the younger son, is sensitive, suspicious, rebellious, but timid. He is shown in the opening scene that he is too afraid to jump into the water from a high platform. After his peers (including his elder brother) are gone, he stayed there, shivering, crying, until his embracing mother comes to his rescue. He is called ‘shorty’ by his peers, and because of the failure to jump, also rejected as chicken the following day.
In contrast, his elder brother Andrey is an average teenager but tends to be more accepting and obedient to the unknown father. The father is strict, uncommunicative, and can even be described as militant in his handling of his sons.
The tone of the whole film and the character of Ivan are set in the opening scene, in which a group of teenagers are playing diving from a high platform. The sky is cloudy, with strong wind blowing, and the whole frame is greyish blue. The film prepares itself for a heavy and depressing story, and Ivan is shown to be a timid boy afraid of jumping from the platform.
Second scene: sky begins to turn dark. Ivan is alone on the platform, embracing himself in the cold wind, crying, and desperate; he dare not jump but dare not climb down the ladder lest he would be called a chicken. Mother comes, clothes him, comforts him, and assures him that nobody would know he has not jumped.
Scene 3: Ivan goes into a grey worn out abandoned building to join his peers who are playing football there, only to find himself rejected as being a chicken. He and his brother get into a fight. Then the audience sees Andrey chasing after Ivan. The editing and numerous changes in background suggest that they are running a long way. While in one shot Ivan is running toward the back dollying camera, we see Andrey turning into an alternative way at the back of the shot. Then we see them running together again. This arrangement suggests that they are probably very familiar with the way, and that it might not so much be a chase but rather a running together. It is in this run that we briefly see some warm colours in a distant for the first time.
Then, we find that they are running toward a house, with Ivan yelling mom, complaining that Andrey is pulling his shirt, while the latter says that Ivan is hurting his lips. But mother tells them to be quiet, saying that their father is sleeping. From this, two things are established: one, the two boys are brothers; two, their father being at home is a fact they have to get used to.
Inside the house, an older woman (presumably their granny) is sitting in front of the table, playing her own hands, seemingly nervous. The boys peep at their father sleeping in bed, and go to the attic to search for an old family photo. Seeing it, Andrey says, ‘that’s surely him.’ Apparently they have not seen their father since they were small kids as shown in the picture.
The dinner table sets up the father’s authoritative character. He pours wine for his wife and mother and himself, but then tells his wife to pour the kids some wine. It is probably the first time the boys have any wine – Andrey likes it and asks for more, while Ivan expresses that he does not really like it. The father’s full shot is the main shot, and we see him breaking bread and giving it to the others. He is the one in control, despite his absence for (we do not yet know how many) years.
It is also in this dinner scene that we see Ivan’s initial enthusiasm – asking about the father’s car, asking for a ride, and expressing excitement when told of a trip ahead. But that very evening, over the bed time talk of the brothers, we know that Ivan is doubtful of this father while Andrey takes it for granted.

The trip is in one sense a ‘power struggle’ between the authoritative father and the rebellious and suspicious younger son, interspersed with the two boys mutual questioning of the other’s attitude.
Father insists that Ivan should answer him by saying papa, which Ivan does reluctantly after some coercion, while Andrey always say papa this and papa that – an attitude which his younger brother scorns at. Father would insist Ivan to finish eating within a certain period of time, gets back Andrey’s wallet from a thief whom he asks his son to beat, leaves Ivan on the roadside as a punishment of the latter’s complaints (for not letting him to fish longer at the same spot). He is also unpredictable and mysterious. We twice see him calling someone, and suddenly send his sons home by bus because he has business to do, and then takes the boys off the bus again to continue the trip. He always acts without explaining, and it is probably the same manner in which he has left home twelve years earlier.
The tone of the trip, which forms the bulk of the whole film, alternates between sunny warm colour and grey monotone cloudy-rainy sky. Most of the time, a sequence would begins with a bright visual mood and followed by dark clouds and even heavy rain. The emotional relationship between father and sons follows this alteration.

The trip / power struggle comes to a disastrous end when the boys come back several hours late after going fishing with the boat. Father hits Andrey harshly. Ivan cannot stand it and takes the knife he has stolen from father to threaten killing him. After a few words of verbal confrontation Ivan runs to climb up a high tower, threatening to jump. Ivan the boy who is afraid of height climbs up a high tower! He must be extremely desperate. Father tries to climb from the side but falls to the ground, dies, because of a loosened plank.
The boys use all their effort to take father’s body back to the boat and back to the shore where they have come from. But when they manage to put everything back into the car, they see the boat drifted away from shore, sinking, together with their father (and the box, of which they know nothing). Here, the audience sees Ivan to be most anxious, running into the water toward the boat, calling ‘papa’ unendingly, a name which he has been so reluctant to call earlier in the trip. Back in the car, Ivan finds an old photo of the two of them with mother. The visual memory of the family has always accompanied papa, although he has not been with them in person.

Throughout the whole film the father is a mystery – his motivations, his background, what he is really trying to do. We do not even know what he has uncovered in the small house on the island; we only see him digging out a suitcase and take out a box from it and put in the boat. It is something of his past, but as his own body is to sink into the water, so is his box; the audience is never to know. (Interestingly, a lady later asked at the box office about what happened to the box. Haha! That’s funny!)

If this is a Hong Kong film, it would certainly be a parable about Hong Kong and China – the authoritative, unpredictable father who believes that he is trying to be good to the sons. The sons, who have not been together with papa over the years, are either accepting, obedient, trying to follow and please papa, or suspicious, critical, and has his own way. But at the end of the day, both prove to be truly affectionate to their father.
Nonetheless, this is not a Hong Kong film. Yet, unabashedly, I am reading this into the story as a native of Hong Kong – as an Ivan, like so many other Hong Kong people.

(originally written on 7 July 2004)

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