Konstantin Khabensky, Maria Poroshina, Vladimir Menshov, Galina Tyunina / Fiction / Russian
Russia's cinema phenomenon - a pitch-dark fantasy franchise on an astonishing scale.
As day follows night, so Day Watch follows Night Watch: the 2004 film claimed to be “the first Russian blockbuster” has spawned the first of what one can only assume will be numerous sequels. Well, bring it on: if Hollywood’s fantasy franchises had this kind of verve, imagination and sheer strangeness about them, JRR Tolkien would be spinning in his grave right now, and the Wachowski Brothers wouldn’t be confined to the naughty corner for crimes against The Matrix.
Not just a gripping, gleefully creepy spectacle, Night Watch represented a very significant moment in a national cinema culture always explicitly shaped by its political context. As the local economy re-asserted itself after the crisis of 1998, and a new generation of entrepreneurs dedicated themselves to banishing the ghosts of the Communist past, so the Russian movie industry prepared itself to go global. At the 2004 Moscow International Film Festival, where Night Watch premiered, every up-and-coming producer had the same pitch. We want mass appeal. We want foreign markets. We want international co-productions complete with superstars and explosions.
Yet Night Watch was clearly a transitional work: an attempt at mainstream popcorn cinema that could neither disguise its dark intelligence nor resist weird philosophical tangents. The first Russian blockbuster proved very Russian indeed: a brooding art film, essentially, albeit one with vampires and – yes – explosions.
Based upon the second part of the same novel by Sergei Lukyanenko, Day Watch continues this eccentric and thrilling trajectory. The world is divided into Dark vampires and Light vampire-vanquishers. Our hero Anton (Konstantin Khabensky) fights on the side of Light, but he has lost his young son to the opposition (cue seriously creepy blank-eyed vampire child). As if that wasn’t enough to worry about, Anton is then framed for a series of grisly murders; and moreover, must keep an eye out for rookie fighter Svetlana (Maria Poroshina), who has no idea of her power, either over the Dark or over Anton… Epic of scale, but breakneck of pace, Day Watch strains at the seams with crazed visual ideas – from The Gloom, a static limbo abuzz with deadly mosquitoes, to a car that speeds up the side of a skyscraper and straight into an office, to Anton and Svetlana’s first kiss – which must have pleased the Russian geek-boy quotient, occurring as it does while Anton is occupying the body of a female fighter! An orgy of visual invention (right down to the subtitles, which have an intriguing habit of responding to the action), Day Watch gives Hollywood franchises a hard act to follow.
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