Saturday, December 08, 2018

Russian Film Week ‘18: In the Hood

As the home of the USSR’s Pacific Fleet, Vladivostok was off-limits to foreigners during the Cold War. It looks like we weren’t missing much. The post-industrial Vladivostok is positioned as something like the Detroit of Russia in model-turned-thesp Olya Zueva’s feature directorial debut, In the Hood (trailer here), which screens as part of Russian Film Week in New York.

Vladimir (Vova) and Kisa are two knock-around meat-headed thugs, who have done pretty well by doing the dirty work of Shamir, an up-and-coming gangster. Initially, their latest assignment sounds like fun: shadowing Shamir’s hard-partying girlfriend as she hops from night spot to night spot. However, Vova draws a line in the sand when they are told to administer a beating in punishment for her unfaithfulness.

Vova wants to go straight, but the crooked system constantly pushes him back towards the thug life. Isn’t that always the way? Plus, the self-destructive Kisa is always going to be a destabilizing influence. Do you think Vova might agree to do him one last solid?

All the archetypes are here. There are two potential love interests: Sonya, a singer in the choral group led by Vova’s mother, who represents purity, and Lida, the nouveau riche scenester Vova meets during their shadow work, who stands for temptation. Plus, there is Kisa, Vova’s tragically flawed brother-from-another-mother and his own long-suffering mom.

Frankly, it is all a little too familiar, even though the crummy Vladivostok setting adds a new, cinematic wrinkle, with its abandoned Soviet-era industrial projects and the grand architecture of its ultra-modern, people-dwarfing bay bridges. Maybe it is a great place to live and rise a family, but Zueva certainly makes it look chilly and grim.

Maybe we have seen these elements before, but In the Hood feels like it is still rather gutsy depicting crime in the Russian underclass at a time when the state news agencies are trying to convince the citizenry they are living in a golden age. You also have to give Zueva credit for taking on the unsympathetic role of Lida, instead of the virtuous Sonya. (Presumably, Zueva is a draw in her own right, having appearing in the Hollywood movie Salt and a high-profile Russian sports film.)

Ilya Malanin and Danila Kozlovsky (a new addition to History Channel’s Vikings next year) are so convincing as the two strong-arm buddies, we can believe they were plucked straight out of skid row, instead of being cast because they are well known Russian actors. Zueva is also quite intriguing as Lida, but her subplot quickly falls by the wayside (which happens fairly frequently in ITH).

Frankly, In the Hood is not a bad film, but anyone who has seen a few Western urban dramas will always be several steps ahead of it. Mostly recommended for the cast’s Russian fans, In the Hood screens this Thursday (12/13), as part of Russian Film Week in New York.