Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"There is strangeness here but of an intriguing rather than repellent sort." | Photo: Courtesy of Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Forget the badlands of the Wild West and take a trip to their eastern equivalent in this striking feature directorial debut from Roman Bondarchuk (co-written with Alla Tyutyunnik and Dar'ya Averchenko), which premiered in the East Of The West competition in Karlovy Vary. In this rural part of Ukraine, where fields of dead sunflowers seem to stretch on forever, anarchy rules and incomers are fools, as protagonist Lukas (Serhiy Stepansky) soon finds out.

He arrives there in an SUV as part of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe - basically an intergovernmental humanitarian group who observing the conflict situation in Ukraine - but when the car breaks down and he goes to try to find a phone signal, he returns to discover the vehicle and occupants have vanished without trace.

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What follows is a sort of Kafka goes up country - Lukas is taken in by an oddball family, metal detectorist and glue aficionado Vova (Viktor Zhdanov), his dangerously attractive daughter Marushka (Khrystyna Deilyk) and Vova's mother. Instead of facing a bureaucratic hell, Lukas finds himself on a no-road-out trip, suffering a loss of identity not at the hands of officials but because of the general lawlessness. The longer the film progresses, the more Bondarchuk subverts the idea of Kafka - rather than this proving to be hell, there's an increasing sense that a loss of structure could be less a tearing down of Lukas' life than an opportunity to build something different.

Conflicts of the past echo distantly, but the current quasi-war with Russia barely seems any closer to hand, present only as a kind of background white noise, courtesy of Vova's mother watching the TV news. Bondarchuk presents the inhabitants of this steppe area as stoic survivors, little troubled by affairs of the country at large. Much is made of mirages - there's a strange doppelganger, a dead choir and their bus and a rogue buoy that nobody can catch - but these elements are presented and treated by the locals as being as natural as the sun rising in the morning, lending the whole film a surreal and dreamlike edge, as though we, like Lukas, may have been left in the sun too long.

Punctuated by striking visuals from cinematographer Vadim Ilkov, such as a overhead view of a slow moving barge in the rain or a sudden outbreak of fireworks in unlikely circumstances, Bondarchuk's more absurdist moments are matched by the film's more graceful contemplative elements. There is strangeness here but of an intriguing rather than repellent sort. By the end, we realise we are not in the middle of nowhere but merely the middle of somewhere else.

Reviewed on: 31 Jul 2018
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A man goes on a series of absurdist adventures after becoming lost in the Ukranian steppe.
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Director: Roman Bondarchuk

Writer: Dar'ya Averchenko, Roman Bondarchuk, Alla Tyutyunnik

Starring: Viktor Zhdanov, Serhiy Stepansky, Viktor Zhdanov, Serhiy Stepansky

Year: 2018

Runtime: 104 minutes

Country: Germany, Ukraine

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