I recently came across a Russian film called I won’t come back, or Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) in Russian. It took a while to decide which one to watch, from a list of films by the likes of Pedro Almodóvar and Michael Haneke. And I chose to watch the film by an unknown Estonian director Ilmar Raag. But after watching it, I can say the much-cliched phrase that you’ve only failed when you stopped trying. Failing, in this context, is not knowing the world of the parallel cinema, not knowing about a different world away from glitzy Hollywood and Bollywood, not witnessing life in another part of the world so less represented in the media. I won’t come back is a powerful film about two orphans fighting their corner in the world and their desperate search for love. The harsh realities of life, laced with short tales providing a poetic, magical, getaway from the sombre undertone of the storyline, and brilliant cinematography spanning the vast expanse of the Russian countryside to the Altai mountains in Kazakhstan — the result of the eclectic mix is unforgettable. And above all, I won’t come back portrays career-defining performances by Polina Pushkaruk and young Vika Lobacheva.
Polina portrays Anya, who grew up in an orphanage, and she becomes a lecturer in a university. There, she falls in love with a professor, but he has a family with children. One day she was accused of hiding drugs she didn’t know about, and she escapes the arrest. To avoid being taken in custody, Anya goes to an orphanage claiming she’s fifteen, and there she meets Kristine, a thirteen-year-old girl, who is bullied by other inmates. Anya defends her, and Kristine began to trust Anya. When Kristine tells Anya that she knows a secret way out, Anya runs away one day, only to find Kristine following her, pleading to take her to her grandma in Kazakhstan. Thus begins the voyage to Kazakhstan, with very little money between them. They had to hitchhike. On the way, Anya receives a call from Andrey, that all charges against her were dropped and she should come back to the uni. Thus begins the clash between the two characters, both desperate to find a tie, a sense of belonging and being loved — Anya, in her lover and Kristine, in her grandma. Anya tries to send Kristine to Kazakhstan in a train but fails. Through various dramatic sequences, it emerges that these two girls needed each other, more than they agreed to admit. But when Kristine said to Anya, she refused to admit it, resulting in Kristine running away and hitchhiking alone in a car leaving Anya behind. After a day of searching for her, Anya finds her alone, walking along the snow-covered road in the upcoming winter. Anya finally realises how much she loved Kristine and decided to travel to Kazakhstan. Then in a sudden twist of fate, as they waited for a car, a drunk driver skids and hits the shed where Kristine was resting, killing her instantly. Anya in her grief realised that she’d become an orphan again, and lost the only human being who loved her unconditionally. The film then shows resolute Anya telling Andrey that she’s not coming back, and finally reaches the village in the Altai mountains. Kristine’ grandmother mistakes Anya to be Kristine, and Anya carried on with the lie, to finally find a place to call home.
Ya ne vernus a magical film, despite its dark and sad undertone. Many scenes were truly emotional, and Polina and Vika made those instances realistic as though the tension between them was palpable. Instances worth specific mention are the time when Anya leaves a howling Kristine in the cemetery petrified of the wolves, or when Kristine kept asking Anya to admit she loved her but Anya kept refusing. Perhaps the most heart-rending scene was when Kristine suddenly dies. With the two girls finally agreeing to go to Kazakhstan, and the viewers expecting a journey to Kristine’s grandmother for a happily ever after, the suddenness of her death left us speechless. Perhaps Anya’s grief in the film moved at a faster pace than the viewers realising that Kristine, the eccentric and dreamy teenager is dead. No miracle is happening, Anya won’t be taking her to a farm where Vika would be treated and recover.
Yet, despite the dreary backdrop throughout the film, it also highlights the strength of a relationship. The mythical interjections in the film, mostly by the dreamy Kristine, gave the film a fantastic aura. These short intervals of fantasy take the viewers’ attention away from the harsh reality of the central theme. Scenes like Kristine introducing herself to Anya telling there are an eagle and a dog inside her who talk to her all the time, or that she had wings but they were broken and she couldn’t fly anymore because God only gives you wings once. We’ll remember Kristine pouring soda on the road so the road sends them a lift, and that of the swan and the girl kept us hoping that there is something positive happening to these girls. We see the relationship between Anya and Kristine evolve with a background of the out and about places in Russia, captured by the fabulous cinematography — from a busy city to the Altai mountains, from a dark, snow-laden cemetery at night, to busy service stations. The film presented slices of Russian life and culture through various imageries, perfectly blended into the storyline, such as the tale of the swan, as they walked past a deserted lake. As much as the unforgettable character portrayals of Polina Pushkaruk and Vika Lobacheva, the cinematography by Tuomo Hutri was a treat.
“There was a girl in the orphanage. One day she ran away from everyone. She came across a lake and saw a swan. She asked the swan to take her away. So the swan picked her up in his beak and flew away. The swan put the girl in his house. But he went away to see his kids and the girl saw him less and less. One day the girl jumped in the water. But she didn’t drown and turned into a fish. The swan came back and couldn’t see the girl. He began to cry. The fish-girl could see the swan but she couldn’t speak to him. From that day, the fish would come up to the surface every day and see her swan cry”
However, it’s the relationship between the characters of Anya and Kristine — the turmoils and their love, is the tour de force in Ya ne vernus. Anya’s character is shown as an intelligent young woman, finding her place in the world putting life in the orphanage behind her. However, as much as she appeared confident in professional life, she seemed helplessly desperate in her personal life. She was looking for stability throughout the film, and that’s why knowing that she had no hope of getting Andrey to leave his family for her, Anya clung on to him. Her only hope, still, was to stay in the city she was living and pray that Andrey leaves his wife and family one day. Until then, at least she can still be in an affair with him. Kristine, on the other side, had nothing in the city. She has no relatives, she’s bullied by all the inmates of the orphanage. All she had was a small tin box, inside which was a crumpled photo with an address of a remote village in Kazakhstan, where her grandma lived. Living in a shelter knowing that she had a living relative made her flee one shelter to another until she met Anya who, unlike others, was ready to stand up to anyone harassing Kristine. Kristine saw her as a big sister, she felt loved and cared for. And she felt secure. But her ultimate goal was to reach Chemolgan, the village in Kazakhstan where her grandma lived. It appeared as though one of these girls will have to make a sacrifice or will be separated forever. If Anya goes to Kazakhstan, she’ll never see Andrey again, and if she went back to the city, Kristine will not see her Grandma. It was as if the destiny was playing a cruel roulette with their fate, where whichever path they chose, they will lose one significant person in their life. The director Ilmar Raag depicted through some unforgettable scenes how Anya opened up her feelings towards Kristine, and that the feeling she felt towards Andrey was slowly fading away.
Polina Pushkaruk was phenomenal in portraying the role of Anya but it’s the young Vika Lobacheva who stole the heart away of the viewers. She made the character of dreamy and feisty Kristine very real to the audience. It was amazing acting by a young actor and I wonder why she wasn’t nominated for the best young actors. I was surprised to find out later that Vika Lobacheva actually spent a large part of her childhood in social care. Ya ne vernus is an exceptional film, magically woven by talented Ilmar Raag and supported by the lead actors Polina and Vika. Adding the cinematography featuring the vast expanse of the Russian countryside, it made I won’t come back one of the phenomenal films I’ve watched recently. Many would argue that this may be classed as a road movie, but I’d strongly oppose that notion. A large part of the film is indeed about the journey for the two women towards Kazakhstan, but it’s much more than a road movie — it’s a tale about finding home and love. To me, it was a fable, a string of magical moments joined together to a bleak storyline. I’m glad that I made the choice to watch Я Не Вернюсь (Ya ne vernus) over the other films I was tempted by, or else I would have missed this rare gem. It was a lesson, that sometimes it’s worth following a hunch, and not just for choosing which films to watch.