Cast: Alexander Lyapin, Lidia Milyuzina, Egor Baranovsky, Ivan Kupreyenko, Olga Tumaikina, Armen Dzhigarkhanyan, Vladimir Ilyin.
Perhaps nowhere are there more contrasts and jarring juxtapositions than in seeing the seventies from the viewpoint of Soviet youth. The film opens with a young couple slow-dancing to early rockíníroll and it could be anywhere. But the camera reveals an apartment, darkened for romance, with a cluttered mixture of shabby cheap and treasured old-world furniture. The young man Sergei (Alexander Lyapin) introduces himself self-importantly to the girl as a dissident university student, a democrat, before they engage in the real purpose of the evening, some enthusiastic teenage pashing. Later he reluctantly allows his unaccompanied friend Stepan (Egor Baranovsky) to take his place, and is disgusted at the ease with which the girl allows the pashing to continue, seemingly not caring that itís a different boy.
In the background, a tape machine plays The Archiesí ĎSugar, Sugarí. As 1969ís highest-selling hit pop record in the West and perhaps the epitome of bubblegum music, it ignores the rampant politicising of the age of Woodstock and Vietnam. Its escapism is significant for this film, which is often uncomfortable. The overall tone is of dissatisfaction, a yearning for something just over the horizon.
We see it mainly through Sergei, whose political dissidence is perhaps more to do with teenage rebellion. Deadly boring university lectures on Marx and Lenin are easily jostled aside by the glitter of black-market Western music and Western clothes Ė the unobtainable Beatlesí Imagine, and Wrangler jeans are as highly valued as religious icons for another level of the black market, the sad older generation losing their culture. Equally and more elusively though, Sergei yearns for an impossible utopia, the vanished empire of the title. His parents, whom he scorns, were archaeologists who found the ruined city of Khorzem, City of Winds, whose ancient desert towers he also sees in golden marijuana-fuelled hallucinations.
In the complexity of Sergeiís headlong pursuit of the unattainable is also his inability to appreciate fully what he has. His girl Lyuda (Lidia Milyuzina) is lovely, pure gold compared to the superficial Russian dollies who frequently pull his attention. Distracted by hot-headedness and wild drinking, he sabotages his relationship with Lyuda over and over again. The poignancy of his realisation of his loss is of one who has had gold in his hands only to find it trickling away as sand blown in the wind. Itís not difficult to see Sergei as analogous of Russia herself.
Ostensibly a film about a love triangle between Sergei, Lyuda and Stepan, The Vanished Empire is far deeper. The final scene, some decades later, shows people whose lives have drifted so far they no longer recognise each other, or even, perhaps, themselves. In this opening film of the 2008 Russian Resurrection Film Festival in Sydney, acclaimed director Karen Shakhnazarov has achieved an extraordinary glimpse of a time of nostalgia, regret and impossible dreams.
© Avril Carruthers 23rd October 2008
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