Details: 120 mins, Russia,
Synopsis: During the war in the Caucuses in August of 2008, a mother journeys to find her son and save him from the war that rages in Ossetia. Meanwhile, the boy deals with the terrors of war though his wild imagination...
War and fantasy make an unusual mix.
shocking and funny at the same time
RUSSIAN RESURRECTION FILM FESTIVAL: This is a domestic drama and a war film. But it starts off like a kid’s fantasy picture. The opening scene, set in a gigantic cave and tricked out with some truly spectacular CGI, has a kid hero called Cosmoboy and his adult sidekick locked into mortal combat with a dark clad villain. Bolts of lethal energy streak the screen, but you never really feel like there’s any risk that anyone but the bad guy is going to get hurt. And take that as an omen for the film’s feel-good politics in the face of tragedy.
This gee-wiz moment is tagged in the next beat: it’s the liberation fantasy of Tyoma (Artyom Fadeev), a little kid with a big imagination. (He was Cosmoboy in that opening scene.) His troubles aren’t extraterrestrial but very much down to earth. His parent’s estrangement and the prospect of a step-dad are the demons that drive Tyoma’s feverish imaginings. Obsessed with action movies and robots that morph into ever more menacing shapes, Tyoma’s fantasy hits high gear and takes control whenever he feels emotionally threatened. And it takes control over the movie too; a casual domestic scene, say, a family dinner in honour of Mum’s new boyfriend Egor ( Aleksandr Oleshko), turns into a high comic cartoon farce as Tyoma’s hostility is unleashed. We switch between ‘real life’ and Tyoma’s wish fulfilment fantasy, which here means ‘shattering’ poor old Egor into a thousand pieces, without warning. The effect, which reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s flights of fancy that ‘corrupt’ the order of so called real-life in pictures like The Fisher King or Brazil, is shocking and funny at the same time.
Still, August 8th isn’t really about Tyoma in the sense that he’s the picture’s hero, even if the film’s point of view at first suggests it. This is a movie about mother love and mother courage. The film, directed with blockbuster intensity and mounted on an epic scale by Dzhanik Fayziev, is really about Tyoma’s mum, Kseniya (Svetlana Ivanova), a petite thirtysomething who is nothing like the movie archetype of a femme action movie arsekicker. Tiny, fragile, with big wild and frightened eyes, she turns out to be as tough as nails. The plot has Kseniya thrown into a war zone dodging bullets and RPG’s but never once faltering from her quest to rescue her boy, who becomes trapped behind enemy lines in an internecine war. (How’s that for a metaphor?!)
The plot emphasises obligation and sacrifice. And guilt. In the movie’s operatic plot scheme, it’s Kseniya who is ‘responsible’ for Tyoma’s dilemma. When Tyoma’s dad, Zaur (Egor Beroev), a nice guy soldier stationed on the Georgian border, calls to ask permission to have his son for a weekend in Ossetian, Kseniya sees a chance to plan a romantic getaway with Egor. Tyoma arrives safely and just in time for the start of the Russo-Georgian Five Day War, which began overnight on the 7th August, 2008. By the next day, the Georgians who aimed to reclaim South Ossentia from Russian-backed control had succeeded in overwhelming the city of Tskhinvali. As soon as hostilities break out, Kseniya takes off to bring back Tyoma to the family home in Moscow; and just so there’s no sense that Mum has blown an opportunity at a new life, Egor turns out to be a jerk and a coward.
Once the domestic plot is put to rest, August 8th turns into a chase and rescue pic. We follow Kseniya as she has to run a scary gauntlet of false leads – and one cliffhanging episode to another – in an effort to reach Tyoma. The action scenes have that nagging relentlessness so true of modern cinema, which in the context of this story, feels perilously close to bad taste at times.
August 8th has been banned in Georgia, one of several former Soviet border states who find the film’s politics offensive. Bloggers in the East have described this film as ‘propaganda’ in the sense that the Russians are portrayed here as both victims and reluctant combatants. The Five Day War’s complex origins are absent from the narrative. There’s an attempt at ‘balance’, though, the film’s tragedy has not much to do with the Georgian experience, and its troops are largely anonymous, sometimes merciful but most often ruthless.
Still, I suspect what offended most was the film’s tone; imagine a mongrel cross of Michael Bay spectacle with the emotional intensity of Paul Greengrass, combined with a sanctimonious ‘war is inhuman for all’ mind-set and you’re close to approximating this movie’s maze of conflicting ideas and feelings. (Tyoma’s robot fantasies look like a lot like the Transformers). Its incidental pleasures abound but its worrisome attitude makes it guilty fun.
August 8th reminded me of an old-fashioned Hollywood action vehicle, the kind of risk-averse entertainment that pretended to be apolitical. It can’t afford ambiguity or ambivalence. Like its hero-mum, this pic has a rigid moral compass. And doesn’t let you ever forget it.
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