QUICK SNAP : LIVE FROM ROTTERDAM
There’s a crucial moment in Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novel Lord Jim where the protagonist has a moment of crisis. Does he live up to his romantic notions of heroism and die? Or is he a coward and survive? Conrad’s main point isn’t the intricacy of the reasoning or the philosophical arguments for the choice. Rather, it’s the fact that Lord Jim doesn’t really make the choice at all. One moment he’s thinking about it and the next it’s done.
In Adilkhan Yerzhanov’s new film there’s a similar moment of moral dilemma when math teacher Tazshy (Azamat Nigmanov) finds himself in the middle of a terrorist attack. Masked raiders have entered his school and started firing guns. He was in the lavatory sneaking a ciggy, upset with his ex-wife Lena (Aleksandra Revenko) who had shown up to take their son (who is in his class). Tazshy has locked the kids in the classroom and now the terrorists approach. Does he run to free them? Or save his skin? Like Lord Jim, he doesn’t really decide: he just finds himself sleep walking out of the school. When he’s asked about the class he assures everyone they got away before hopping on the rescue buses himself. It is a moment of weakness, terrible weakness. And Tazshy will spend the rest of the film trying to redeem himself.
No help is coming. The small village Karatas in Kazakhstan is locked in the midst of a frozen waste so white it reminded me of the white prison that lodges Robert Duvall in THX 1138 (1971). It screams ‘existential alienation’ at the top of its frosty lungs. The SWAT team won’t be there for days. A motley assortment made up of parents, the school principal (Teoman Khos), the police chief (Nurlan Smayilov) and the PE teacher Sopa (Berik Aitzhanov) will have to rescue the kids themselves. ‘Pragmatics,’ Tazshy tells them as the hours click down to the assault of the title. They’re partly aided by Afghanistan veteran Dalbych (Yerken Gubashev), who is now an alcoholic school janitor.
At every point it’s hard not to wonder what the Hollywood remake might look like. Certainly it follows the kind of action movie grammar, with arcs of redemption and what have you, but it does so just to kick them to one side at the moment you thought you were coming to a safe landing. Dalbych doesn’t transform Steven Segal like into a killing machine. Tazshy isn’t a Liam Neeson Dad-bot of violent revenge. The best shot of the bunch is actually Lena who proves to be a crack shot but even she lacks confidence to actually you know kill someone. One of the more physically capable of the crew is Turbo (Daniyar Alshinov), a young man with special needs who can run like lightning (though stopping him proves difficult).
The obvious real life parallel to draw would be with the Beslan attack in 2004 and there is a strong satirical edge, particularly in the denouement. Yet the terrorists are as blank as the landscape, never revealing themselves as anything other than McGuffins. What saves the film from tastelessness is that constant subversion of expectation. When one character confesses something intimate, another one mockingly tells his neighbour: ‘your turn, don’t you want to tell us about when your uncle touched you?’ None of these characters will grow from this, or learn anything. One feels that the whole thing could easily just get drifted over and disappear from human sight. There’s a bitter dark humour similar to Riders of Justice (2021), if not quite as adroit. And it’s tastelessness is more honest and straightforward than the ghoulish right wing fantasy Run Hide Fight (2020), which had a similar concept.
The International Film Festival of Rotterdam (IFFR) is an online edition running from 26 January to 6 February.