November 29, 2012

How I Ended This Summer (2010)

(AKA Kak ya provel etim letom)

"A polar station on a desolate island in the Arctic Ocean. Sergei, a seasoned meteorologist, and Pavel, a recent college graduate, are spending months in complete isolation on the once strategic research base. Pavel receives an important radio message and is still trying to find the right moment to tell Sergei, when fear, lies and suspicions start poisoning the atmosphere..."

I thought that I'd already posted a review of this Russian psychological thriller which won the 2010 London film festival, but I was mistaken. As it's "Thriller Thursday", here's a quick review at last and my recommendation that you watch it.

Filmed in three months with a $2,500,000 budget, "How I Ended This Summer" is Aleksey Popogrebskiy's second full-length feature after "Roads to Koktebel" (2003). I can't say that I was as enamoured by "Koktebel" as many critics were back in the day, but Aleksey Popogrebskiy has excelled himself with "How I Ended This Summer". The cinematography is outstanding, and the acting (as far as any non-Russian can tell) is superb.

"How I Ended This Summer" is slowly paced, but the mounting tension which is caused by miscommunication and intentional non-communication makes this study of paranoia in an isolated environment even better than "The Thing" (1982) in places. With "The Thing" being my favourite horror movie of all time, I don't make such a bold claim lightly. There are occasions when the story lags, but "The Thing" isn't perfect either. "How I Ended This Summer" is extremely uncomfortable to watch and far more tragic.

The bad news is that it's a Russian movie with subtitles so, if you don't like reading, this might not be the right kind of movie for you. The alternative is to learn Russian, of course, but it would be overkill considering that there aren't that many lines of dialogue anyway. Laconic, uncommunicative characters may well be Aleksey Popogrebskiy's trademark based on the two movies of his which I've seen.

In "How I Ended This Summer", all the trouble is caused not only by lack of communication but by fear. Pavel (Grigoriy Dobrygin) is a young student who is so terrified of the stereotypically strict, gruff and physically powerful older man, Sergei (Sergey Puskepalis), that he daren't tell him some very important family news in case he goes crazy. The longer Pavel tries to cover up the secret, the more suspicious of each other the two men become until things can only end badly for at least one of them.

Some of Pavel's decisions make you want to shake some sense into him especially as Sergei doesn't really seem to be that potentially volatile. I'm sure it's possible to read more into the story as a clash of the old, stoic, Soviet way of life with the weaknesses of the capitalism which has replaced it. Capitalism certainly breeds deceit, and that message may well be the political subtext, but you don't need to analyse such things to appreciate "How I Ended the Summer" at all. There are moments which make you wonder if Pavel is justified, but others where it's clear that Sergei isn't a bad guy. There's no black and white but lots of grey. The bottom line is you have to ask yourself what you would do for the best in the same situation?

At first, it seems that Pavel is hiding the news from home to protect Sergei from doing harm to himself, but it becomes increasingly obvious that Pavel is too immature for such altruism and is all about his own self-preservation. As in many situation comedies, very bad decisions are compounded and escalate, but "How I Ended This Summer" has no comedy to it unless it's of the darkest kind. The result of this bleak "comedy of errors" is truly very sad.

I'm not going to go into any more more depth except to say that there are recognisable horror formulas in "How I Ended This Summer" which certainly bring it close to being included in our favourite genre. At one point, there's a tense game of hide and seek which reeks of similar moments between stalker and victim in "Halloween" or any other slasher.

Horror is pretty dead right now so it's the perfect opportunity to take in some related subgenres. For most people, "How I Ended This Summer" wouldn't be seen as a horror movie at all, but the more you think about it, the more it should be.

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