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Friday, March 31, 2006

STRAIGHT FROM LAPLAND

Ill communication fixed by love



Kukushka

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Alexander Rogozhkin
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: Russian, Finnish, Saami, German
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Miscommunication can be a good thing, at least when it happens in a quirky menage a trois somewhere deep in the hills of Lapland. In "Kukushka" (meaning "cuckoo" or "sniper" in Russian), each member of the three-person cast can only speak their native languages: Russian, Finnish and the Lapp dialect Saami, but they live and love under the same tiny roof, in just one tiny room.

News photo
Anni-Kristiina Juuso in "Kukushka"

The failure to comprehend each others' words eventually leads to a deep understanding of each others' souls: which we all know as a state that rarely happens when people share the same language and culture and are constantly in touch on various modern devices. Perhaps the problem isn't lack of communication, but too much.

Directed by Russia's Alexander Rogozhkin, "Kukushka" has a message in it somewhere about the futility of war and the preciousness of peace but the verbal non-logistics of the proceedings obliterate all cloyness and cozy cliches and in the end, there's just the feeling of having witnessed something wondrous. Nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, quality Russian movies are finally making appearances on the international film circuit and if "Kukushka" is an indication of what's to come, we're probably looking at a whole new wave of Russian talent, a la the Hanryu (Korean Wave) sensation.

"Kukushka" is set in the hill country of Finland in 1944, days before the country pulled out of World War II. The frontline soldiers, however, are unaware that the war is almost over and deserters and pacifists are being severely punished. Finnish sniper Veikko (Ville Haapasalo) has lost his will to fight and for this he is forced to wear a Nazi uniform and chained to a rock on a foothill where the ferocious, Nazi-hating Russians are bound to find him. But Veikko is allowed to keep his glasses and given a water tank. Aided by these, the resourceful young Finn breaks free (the whole sequence will inspire a whole unit of boy scouts) and starts walking in search of shelter, with the chain still dangling around his ankle. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, Russian soldier Ivan (Viktor Bychkov) is arrested on suspicion of treason but on the way to being deported his truck is accidentally bombed by a Russian fighter plane, leaving his captors dead and himself severely injured. These two men, whose lives were never meant to cross save on a battlefield, wind up in the cabin of Lapp reindeer farmer Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), sharing the same blanket and eating her pancakes that she makes partly with wood shavings ("I don't have enough flour" she explains, with neither of them understanding a word). Ivan, who can't speak Finnish or German, is full of animosity for the Nazi-uniform clad Veikko, spitting out "Fascist Pig!" every five minutes. Veikko explains he's not German but a Finnish peace-loving student but all he gets are growled putdowns like "eat my sh*t!")

Their political non-debates are completely irrelevant to Anni, who after four years of abstinence (her husband had been drafted and left her widowed) is simply overjoyed to have not one but TWO hulking men on the premises. Whenever the pair start arguing Anni sighs loudly and intervenes: "Don't waste your energies talking about stupidities! Use your strength to take me by the shoulders, push me down on the hay and make love!" Veikko catches on and because he would like to repay her for taking him in, does his best to comply. Ivan is jealous in his mulish way, but he too would like to express his gratitude. As soon as he's strong enough he goes off in the hills to pick wild mushrooms for soup, but Anni warns him that the mushrooms are poisonous and immediately feeds him an herbal diuretic potion. After that, Ivan has to spend a lot of time in the outhouse, poor guy.

The centerpiece of this tale is undoubtedly the fearless, spunky Anni who radiates the joy of living, hard work and . . . good times. If she had been Finnish or Russian the story would not have worked quite so well -- her presence is crystalline, unmarred by subtexts of language, politics, history. The two soldiers must have felt they were in the company of some fantastic woodland creature who laughed at the slightest joke whether she understood it or not, gave everything and only asked for a little intimacy in return.

"Sometimes I just want to feel a man next to me" she tells Ivan, and it sounds like the truest, gutsiest words spoken on-screen in a long time. "She's all woman," Ivan says to Veikko in a rare moment of complicity. And he's right. But it takes Anni to show us how rare such all-woman women have become.



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