Thursday, April 13, 2023

Once Upon a Time in Ukraine

Taras Shevchenko was a former serf, who became Ukraine’s national bard. His poetry was so important to Ukrainian cultural identity (which Putin denies ever existed), the Soviets never banned his work. They just emphasized his anti-Czarist writings, rather than his Ukrainian pride. He also teamed up with a half-Ukrainian half-Japanese samurai to fight ninjas. That part might be a bit of dramatic license on the part of screenwriter-director Roman Perfilyev. Regardless of historical accuracy, Ukrainians will rise-up and fight for their freedom in Perfilyev’s Once Upon a Time in Ukraine, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on VOD.

Shevchenko and his ilk are still referred to as “Bondman,” meaning they are bonded to the land. He almost escaped over the border with his beloved, Maria, but their plan was foiled, by her master, Yaromir Loboda. While awaiting execution, Shevchenko is “liberated” by Bogdan Chuba, a supposed peasant revolutionary, who is really just out for himself, like every other “revolutionary” since 1776. Instead of joining his gang, Shevchenko shuffles off with Akayo Nakamura, the half-Japanese son of a Ukrainian Bondwoman, who also has business with Loboda.

The vicious landowner also does business with Nakamura’s nemesis, Yoshi Harimoto, an opium dealing human-trafficker, who killed the samurai’s master and stole his sword. Subsequently, Harimoto gave the katana to his new business partner, Loboda, with whom he exchanges opium for Ukrainian women. Obviously, Nakamura will not let that stand.

The Tarantino echoes here are obvious and deliberate. If anything, Perfilyev’s film is even less historically accurate than
Inglorious Basterds. However, like Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time is presented as a wish-fulfilling fantasy—one that happens to be particularly crazy and over-the-top. It is not trying to re-write history, like the recent Chinese film that radically altered the events and implications of the Battle of Chosin. In further contrast, Perfilyev’s film clearly believes all people deserve freedom and human dignity.

Perhaps the happiest surprise is how much great martial arts and swordplay this Ukrainian film stages. It is debatable whether Sergey Strelnikov really looks half-Japanese, but he is convincingly fierce and was well-trained for Nakamura’s fight scenes. Roman Lutskyi’s portrayal of Shevchenko is surprisingly comedic, for a national hero, but he also gives him everyman grit that is easy to identify with and root for. Weirdly, they mesh pretty well as odd-couple action buddies.

The film is also well-stocked with colorfully despicable villains, including Gen Seto as Hashimoto and Yakov Tkachenko as Chuba. Awkwardly, the depiction of an Orthodox Jewish arms-dealer is sometimes approaches the vicinity of troubling stereotypes—although it should also be noted hardcore anti-Semitic campus radicals probably will not approve of the way his character ultimately develops either.

Looking past that sloppiness, Perfilyev entertains with his pitch-black humor and his wildly violent mayhem. It is probably a bad idea to invade any sovereign nation that could produce such a film, because it clearly comes from a place that values freedom (and poetry). Highly recommended for fans of martial arts and defying authority,
Once Upon a Time in Ukraine opens tomorrow (4/14) in LA, at the Laemmle Glendale.