Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"How I Ended This Summer" is a stunning two-man Arctic adventure film from Russia -- with a warning


How I Ended This Summer” (“Kak ya provyol etim letom”), now a DVD from Film Movement, directed by Aleksei Popogrebsky) is both a small film with two characters and a spectacular, gripping, epic and enigmatic thriller, and a bit of a mystery.  Alfred Hitchcock would have found this film interesting.  The Russians can make stirring films.

Two men, a forty something Sergei (Perskepelis) and grad student 20-something Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) man a meteorology station in far northeast Russia, along the Arctic Ocean, in the Chukotka Autonomous Region (Chukchi Peninsula), actually near the Bering Sea and Alaska.  It’s supposed to be August, when the very brief nights start to appear and cold weather can start.  We don’t know this at first, but the outpost apparent stores some nuclear materials and may be contaminated and dangerous.  Men who work there might run a cancer risk later, or be unable to have children.

This is a film with four points of view: the external truth, the knowledge of the omniscient movie goer, and then each of the two men – even if the title suggests a film from Pavel’s (the kid’s) viewpoint. Pavel is apparently an intern and a bit of a daydreamer, liking to play video games and play with his iPod.  The base computers are bizarre black boxes with mainframe screens and no Internet.  Sergei is very dedicated to his work as a meteorologist and somewhat upset with Pavel’s diffidence.  He also likes to go off by himself, without authorization, trout fishing on a motor boat, for reasons that are murky but apparently critical.

While Sergei is off on a trip, Pavel gets a radio message that Sergei’s family back home has been killed in an “accident”.  Pavel doesn’t tell Sergei this.  Why seems like a mystery.  But we start noticing the more bizarre aspects of the setup.  In the midpoint of the film, Sergei displays some homoerotic interest in Pavel, who is quite attractive (he rather resembles James Franco).  Pavel seems to go along with it but acts as if it were unwelcome (that is, he's straight).  What was this family, anyway?  Sergei goes out again, and Pavel  gets more calls from home asking if he told (Pavel says he showed the radiogram) and asking why Sergei is out again.  A rescue ship is supposed to be stuck in the ice (which sounds out of character for August, especially with global warming).  Then, the “nuclear” issue starts figuring into the plot, as well as contamination of the trout.  Pavel seems desperate to escape from Sergei as well as a polar bear (to bring up the Jack London adventure idea, as in many other outdoor films reviewed here, such as “The Grey”).  The ending, when “authorities” arrive, is indeed ambiguous.

Pavel becomes a very strong character is the film progresses, transforming himself into something like an Army Ranger from the "lazybones" attitude he sometimes shows early in the movie. 

For one thing, one could take this film (like another Russian “isolated adventure film” “The Return”, reviewed here Dec 28, 2011) as another dire warning of the loose nuclear material lying around the remnants of the Soviet Union, with the possibility rogue actors could misuse it for terrorist purposes.

The distributor’s website for the film is here. Note that Film Movement offers discounts to subscribers and apparently makes exhibition contracts with smaller art theaters.

The film won prizes at the Berlin and London film festivals in 2011.  I wonder if the Oscars would have seriously considered  a Russian film like this for best foreign language film. 

The film is shot in conventional 1.85:1, but would have benefited from a wider aspect because of the stunning Arctic scenery.   The layout of the compound is a little but hard to follow, and it becomes critical during the final climax of the film (with the “trap door scene”).


The DVD includes a “short film of the month”, “First Day of Peace” (“Prvi dan mira”), directed by Mirko Ruckov, as part of a graduate school thesis.  On the day that a peace agreement to end the Bosnian conflict is announced (in the 1990s), a peasant (Rodoljub Burzaor)  travels to the disputed area to plow the land and bridge ethnic conflicts in person.  Remember that Richard Strauss composed a choral work late in his life called "Peace Day". 

Wikipedia attribution link for map.

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