Though I am not really one to discredit an entire nation’s cinema, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who will state that Ukraine is a powerhouse of film. Additionally, notable genre films from that region are virtually non-existent. So, when I found out about a Lovecraftian horror film from Ukraine that had some buzz behind it, I decided to track it down and give it a shot. How does it fair? Years from now, will we be consuming more macabre tales from the Ukraine?
WHAT IS IT?
Directed by Dmitriy Tomashpolskiy , “Stranger” follows a detective who has been tasked with trying to figure out mysterious disappearances that have been happening. The first major event comes from a synchronized swimming team disappearing mid performance, which leads the detective to explore a health clinic whose patrons have also disappeared into water.
From there… Well…. Things get kind of strange. Perhaps best described as arthouse cinema, the detective begins to navigate through a surrealist nightmare punctuated by time travel, fish people, split personality, and an evil doll (just to name a few).
WHAT DID I LIKE ABOUT THE FILM?
To be upfront, probably my favorite aspect of the productions rests within novelty, being able to watch a film from a country not really known for horror. It feels like a base reason to be intrigued by a film, but seeing the landscape of Ukraine, hearing the language spoken, and seeing how familiar horror tropes were tackled is what really kept me glued to the screen.
Outside of the incidental reason to enjoy the film, the cinematography can be really picturesque. Whether it be working with a neon colour pallet to highlight the weird contours of a room, or looming overhead shots of industrial spaces, Stranger can be a very pretty film at times.
The film also shows the charm of working within a budget, with some effects that are undeniably basic and would face mockery in a bigger production. However, it is apparent that the film was working on a rather tight budget and the atmosphere they were able to craft on such restrictions in commendable. Overall, the passion for the project really comes through as awareness of restrictions is acknowledged but pushed through to give a cohesive creative vision. It is a very aesthetically pleasing production.
Regardless, I struggled to say if the performances are a positive or negative with how stilted and clunky they can be. I believe the actors did a great job with the dialogue given and commitment to their complicated characters. Furthermore, lead actor Anastasiya Yevtushenko has such a commanding presence that I found her an ideal focal point to keep grounded amongst the absurdity.
WHAT DIDN’T I LIKE ABOUT THE FILM?
With each statement to follow here, I ask that you keep in mind of my complete love of bad cinema and while these are definitely negatives, they did provide a degree of entertainment.
Firstly, the film tackles way too many things in its short run time. We have ghosts, evil dolls, haunted paintings, cults, time travel, interdimensional travel, split personalities, aliens, all told through a non-linear structure. It is way too much for even the most seasoned cinephile to really follow. This is all delivered in a very convoluted manner, so while I understand the plot points, every moment and concept was just done in excess. Consequently, the film feels like it is always tripping over its next big plot point without really providing closure on the last. Not all the twists are horrible in concept, but consistently poorly executed.
With so many lofty concept floating around, it’s no surprise that the dialogue can be equally hard to follow. Some of the conversations just seem so utterly unreal. A prime example comes early in the film with an in depth conversation about the number 126 and its relation to Nuclide numbers. This conversation is actually played back when the detective’s (possibly) split identity breaks down the number even further with mathematical equations, history and ending by banging the number in Morse code on a desk. It is beyond awkward and strange that it left me rather dumbfounded. Small examples of this kind of dialogue can be pointed out throughout the runtime, there is no shortage of verbal absurdism.
Stanger is one of the oddest experiences I have ever had with a film, but not necessarily in a good way. There are certain elements that make it such an awkward film to approach and enjoy. It is disorienting and nonsensical to a fault. To its credit, I will probably never forget the film and am almost certain it will pop in my head from time to time. This staying power is perhaps best reflected in a segment about the deeper meaning of sneezing. If you sneeze between 11 and 12 on a Sunday, you better pray you don’t sneeze between 3 and 4 later that day. Undeniably, that kind of information will stick with you despite it being useless.
With that said, I would say I like the film, but if you were hear me say that in person, the term “like” would probably come out slow and in an awkward tone. It is really hard to say beyond being different why the film has merit, but I would recommend anyone who loves horror and (to an extent) bad film to experience this oddity from Ukraine.
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