In a previous life, back in 2005, there were no Russian articles for me to write, no blogs, no research and no deadlines to meet. There was one tenuous Russian connection, however (though I suspect this was less of a precursor to what I’d end up doing than a random one-off).
I’m guessing that it was late summer, dusk, around 7.30pm – the time we were scheduled to meet in a cellar bar beneath the Arts Centre, all uniformed in metres of black leather and accessorised with dark glasses. Think casual gothic, downbeat with tired edges, and without the hair and make-up excesses. All in mirrored appreciation and empathy for what we were about to witness upstairs. The hottest Russian export (in my humble opinon) since caviar: the film Night Watch, directed by Timur Bekmambetov.
To be honest, I had some hand in the film’s screening. I was (and still am) a cinema projectionist in the establishment, and had suggested including the picture in our programme on the basis of its unique qualities, origins and creative style. Be careful what you wish for… An empty slot in the schedule – “for one night only” – appeared, and sure enough my number came up.
I love it when somebody, somewhere takes a standard “Hollywood” format, re-packages it with a twist, injects something new and fresh, and then sells it right back to L.A. – showing just what can be achieved in the process. So here we have a modern-day horror-fantasy-action hybrid with ambiguity and a dark, grimy, almost tangible texture, shot with atmosphere and dynamism side by side.
It’s not a monstrous rampage through Los Angeles or New York; it’s a vision of downtown Moscow, complete with lycanthropic shape-shifters, street-smart vampires and flawed, morally ambiguous characters caught somewhere between good and evil. Mercifully, the audience isn’t beaten into raw steak with tidy explanation or a focus-group ending, and the whole experience feels fresher, edgier and more inventive as a result. It’s horror, kind of – but with a plot and characters, and a story that you have to pay attention to. Just like a real film, in fact. A combination that some critics didn’t seem to “get” at the time.
At its core is a traditional good-versus-evil fable, but taken to the point of truce: an uneasy peace between two armies set to annihilate each other in all-out war. So, their mutually assured destruction empties the battlefield, putting an ultimate resolution on hold for centuries until the balance is tipped by an unknowing messianic figure. Whichever side converts and claims him will have the upper hand. Who can get to him first? In the meantime, good owns the day and evil the night, with each period being policed by elements of the opposing side – the evil “day watch” and good “night watch”, respectively – to ensure that the agreement is held and equilibrium maintained.
Although the story takes place in Moscow, this isn’t a “tourist” film; the city serves as a backdrop to the action. Interestingly, the metro scenes were shot in St Petersburg, though I don’t know why this should have been!
The film combines plots lines and elements from Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch and Day Watch novels, with expanded or contracted themes resulting in a hybrid adaptation of the author’s work.
As far as I’m aware, this was the first commercial release to feature (for non-Russian-language audiences) a certain creative presentation of subtitles: the text occasionally shifts and morphs in response to the on-screen action or atmosphere – another innovative touch.
Although heavily advertised as the first part of a trilogy, to date only it and the immediate sequel Day Watch have been released, the third instalment being on indefinite hold. The director seems content to pursue other projects at present.
So anyway, back in 2005, having out-grossed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King inside Russia, Night Watch – in a version 10 minutes shorter and with flashy subtitles – is playing at the local arts centre. Well, we managed 50% capacity. Is that so bad for a foreign-language fantasy-horror on a week night? Just what is the benchmark for such a thing?
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 30)
More Moscow must-sees, with Gorky Park and the Peter the Great statue.
[Photo by qnr]