Friday, October 20, 2023

Victor Ginzburg’s Empire V

Even before Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia was a metaphorical nation of blood-suckers. It has no manufacturing base and an anemic service economy. All the money comes from natural resources and goes straight to the oligarchs and the corrupt politicians and gangsters, who serve their interests. Those elites turn out to be very real vampires in Victor Ginzburg’s Empire V, which had its American premiere at this year’s Screamfest.

Just so viewers feel safe watching
Empire V without implying support the Putin regime, keep in mind the film has been banned in Russia and co-star rapper Miron Fedorov (a.k.a. Oxxxymiron) has been branded a “foreign agent” for his opposition to Putin’s war against Ukraine. Maybe it’s highly class-conscious analogies could apply elsewhere too, but Putin (or his flunkies) clearly thought it reflected the reality in Russia, only too faithfully.

Technically, the vamps are not really vamps. They are the (mostly) willing hosts of a parasite known as “The Tongue.” A tiny drop of blood (the vampires insist on calling it “red liquid”) is enough to sustain the Tongue, but a Theranos-sized drop can give the vampires the memories and knowledge of the blood-donors.

It is a lot for the new Rama to take in. He succeeded the old Rama, whose Tongue chose him, after his predecessor lost a duel to the sleazy Mithra, who is perversely supposed to be Rama II’s mentor, in accordance with the traditions of Empire V (so named to distinguish it from the Third Reich and the Fourth Roman Empire). Mithra is much more interested in his other mentee, the waifish Hera—and so is Rama. Their rivalry for Hera (you wouldn’t really call it “romantic” for these vampires) reignites Mithra’s rivalry with the Rama line.

Like his last film,
Generation P, Ginzburg adapted Empire V from a novel written by Victor Pelevin. This time around, he focuses far more on the sociological world-building than on the undead sucking and swooning. It is fascinating, but after about seventy minutes, you start to realize how little has actually happened.

Pelevin’s vampire mythology is vastly different than standard
Underworld stuff, but it is well suited to Ginzburg’s wild and trippy visual approach. This is a hard gig for actors, but Federov is spectacularly sinister as Mithra. Taya Radchenko is also weirdly seductive as Hera. Bronislav Vinogrodsky adds grizzled Peter Cushing vibes as (the more interesting) Loki, one of Rama’s vampire instructors. Although Pavel Tabakov’s Rama is believably naïve and in over his head, his character is Empire V’s dullest component part.

Ginzburg proves that in the right hands, exposition can still be wild and crazy. As a work of cinema, it is often dazzle to behold. It also captures the predatory and morally-compromised climate of Putin’s Russia. Recommended as a decidedly new twist on vampires and a voice from outside the officially-sanctioned, propaganda-dominated Russian film industry,
Empire V should have a long run on the festival circuit, after its Screamfest premiere.