Monday, March 25, 2019

QWFF ’19: Bad Bad Winter

What’s a little wealth redistribution between friends? You could also call it home invasion, armed robbery, and hostage-taking, but that would be too honest. Regardless, a group of old Kazakhstani friends will not be friends much longer in Olga Korotko’s Bad Bad Winter, which screens as part of the 2019 Queens World Film Festival.

Dinara has returned to the provincial town of her school days to close out her recently deceased grandmother’s cozy cottage. Since leaving to study medicine in Astana, here fortunes have improved greatly and so have those of her businessman father. In contrast, the prospects of her old classmates have stayed as lousy as ever—or even gotten worse. Nevertheless, she is still sufficiently interested in her old flame Marat to spend the night with him.

Regrettably, Marat happens to spy her granny’s rather sizable untapped stash of cash, so he returns the next day with his suspicious girlfriend Arai, and fellow schoolmates Aibek and Sanzhar, who are facing a potential murder charge along with Marat, if they cannot adequately grease the necessary official palms. Obviously, they intend to steal that cash Dinara subsequently tucked away, but finding it again will be trickier than Marat expected. For a while, everyone pretends this a just a soiree for old friends, but they eventually acknowledge what it really is: a home invasion. Of course, Dinara knew it all along. After all, she always was the smartest one in class.

The strange is-this-a-thriller-or-isn’t tone of film’s first thirty minutes or so makes it hard to pigeonhole, but it is weirdly effective. Of course, it inevitably becomes clear this is indeed a rather dark crime drama, at which point Dinara strips away the pretenses and levels a withering moral judgment on her captors.

It is too bad New York’s congressional delegation probably will not see Winter, because it depicts redistributionist class-warfare as the thuggery it is. Frankly, Aibek’s threats and justifications are uncomfortably similar to their own rhetoric. It is also telling how Dinara’s “guests” berate her one minute for wearing frumpy old clothes and then accuse her of lording her wealth over them.

This is also a great example of a film helmed by a woman and powered by a formidable female lead, but it is not likely to turn up in surveys women-driven filmmaking. Regardless, Tolganay Talgat is absolutely riveting as Dinara. It is fiercely intelligent performance that covers an awful lot of physical and psychological ground. As the psychotic Aibek, Zhalgas Zhangazin exudes creepy malevolence. There is something deeply unsettling about his violent sense of entitlement, probably because it hits so close to home. Tair Magzumov manages to project an extremely weird pathos as the remorseful junkie, Sanzhar, while Nurgul Alpysbayeva further ratchets up the hothouse tension as the jealous Arai.

With its confined setting and five principal characters, Winter has all the elements of the classic stage thriller. Korotko marshals them all quite effectively, but there is also some subtle social commentary (especially regarding the Kazakhstani justice system) woven in. Very highly recommended, Bad Bad Winter screens this Wednesday (3/27) during QWFF ’19.