Student Critics' Reviews: The Owners
This year, the Student Critics Jury at Edinburgh International Film Festival made their picks of the Fest. Today our coverage continues with Hanna Kubicka's review of The Owners.
Adilkhan Yerzhanov describes his film The Owners (2014) as an ‘honest reflection of [post-Soviet] society’ in Khazahstan. The film presents the ‘grotesque actuality’ of ‘“grunge” [social] attitudes towards the abuse of rights and the harassment of people’ while steering away from ‘social film’ clichés. Peter Rollberg, writing about Yezhanov’s previous film The Constructors (2013), points out instead that ‘what matters more [than], the social framework, and even psychological finesse is the cinematic execution’ characterised by ‘rare freshness’ and ‘visual and acoustic control’.
The Owners continues to impress with skilful cinematography, and adroit use of visual language. However, the aesthetic flourishes do not overpower the film’s amusing, intelligent, and at times cruel social critique.
The film seems to respond to Khazakhstan becoming increasingly attractive to tourists, prompting the creation of a sterilised, polished image of this ailing country. The region is promoted as the place ‘where ancient meets modern and oriental traditions coexist with Western culture’. As if to comment on the supposed ‘coexistence’, The Owners mockingly juxtaposes the poor living conditions with the ‘highest’ cultural accomplishments of the civilised world. Yerzhanov creates this effect by presenting the impoverished characters in shots composed to evoke the paintings of Caravaggio, da Vinci, Rembrandt, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Seusier amongst others.
The allusions to classic art clash with the images of an orphaned family of two brothers and their ill sister moving against the decaying rural backgrounds and crumbling walls of corrupt institutions. In the end, the family succeeds in connecting the ancient with the modern by falling victim to the primitive instincts of present-day impoverished villagers.
The film’s representation of the absurd and grotesque aspects of post-Soviet society recalls the tragicomic glory of established Eastern European films such as I Don’t Like Monday (Chmielewski, 1971) or The Fireman’s Ball (Forman, 1967). This reference to the style and humour of films representing the system at its most repressive suggests that, despite the political changes, Kazahstan somehow failed to move on from its Communist past.
The resulting lawless, cruel and disorganised country where the inhabitants claim to ‘deserve to die’ evokes Spaghetti Westerns. However, the film imbues this reference with a much darker tone due to its contemporary setting. As the action progresses, the increasing sense of injustice builds up to the film’s impressive resolution which owes as much to classic Western standoffs as it does to Greek Tragedy.
– Hanna Kubicka