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.
I was a dreamer when I was growing up. I lived in my world of imagination where I was a superhero, a star cricketer, footballer and tennis player, a lover with many girlfriends, a Mafia don, or a vagabond. Whatever suited me, and whoever I wanted to be at that time. Living inside my world of dreams meant at times the imaginations became pretences, and pretences became lies. Almost reminiscent of a remarkable film featuring Audrey Tautou, À la folie, pas du tout. I was a cricketer, and I had to be wounded by a bouncer from Patrick Patterson, and I had to throw the ball ricochet off the wall to hit my jaw. I was a dedicated pretender. I was true to myself.
But I never was obsessed with it, so the lies didn’t have to spiral out of proportion. For some people, it did. To an extent that is beyond imagination. Take the example of Frank W. Dux.
So you don’t know about Frank W. Dux? A surname that sounds like Dukes, not ducks? So you probably don’t know anything about dim mak? Yeah, you are right, it’s a Gen X thing, continuous wallow in nostalgia about the eighties. Frank W. Dux was the inspiration behind one of the most remarkable martial art films in the eighties, Bloodsport. Jean-Claude Van Damme portrayed the role of Frank Dux, who goes to Hong Kong to take part in the fabled Kumite championship, to honour his master, Shidoshi Tanaka. When Frank went to Kumite registration, declaration of the fact that he belonged to Shidoshi school of martial art, that raised a few eyebrows. “If you’re a Shidoshi, show us Dim Mak”. The death touch. And then the pin-drop silence when the judge asked “The bottom one”, a task to break the last of a block of five bricks, without breaking the top four. Then the film follows a typical storyline, with Van Damme defeating the vile Chong Li. I know the story and perhaps could retell the film frame by frame. But what was different the last time I watched it, was a statement in the end, that the film was based on the real-life story of Lt. Frank W. Dux.
The difference between the nineties and the present is that we have passed the years of naïveté, we have seen the world change, and we became so cynical that we probably don’t even trust ourselves. So, in 1992-93 Frank W. Dux would have become a legend in my imaginary world. Last week, I went straight to Wikipedia. And I could see that the pieces of evidence point to that fact that Frank W. Dux wasn’t the Kumite champion, in fact, no such tournament existed in HK. The address he gave where the Kumite took place was actually the place he lived. And the trophy he claimed to have won was bought from a local shop. The account Frank Dux gave was blatant lies.
Why did Frank make the story up? We can only speculate. Because he became a successful martial art trainer, a fascinating story of an American winning a martial art trophy in a faraway land must have bolstered claims of his capabilities. With his book, he became a celebrity, published books, and success of Bloodsport must have made his name known in wider spheres. He went on selling other stories that also ended in films. So there is an obvious motive, of spreading his name, his brand, and thereby spreading the reach of his martial art school. And there’s no doubt whether he won a trophy or not, he had the skills of a black belt.
But was it all for money and fame? Looking through the sources, military records of Dux mentioned that he’s been flighty and over-imaginative at times. Was he a pathological liar? Who knows? But sharing similar instances where I’d have a fight with probably a boy of my age and then that story getting many makeovers as though I fought three super-muscular blokes in their twenties, it lends me another perspective to the claims made by Frank Dux. Was he a pretender? Did he just start telling his pupils that he won this trophy as a kind of braggadocio which then became part of his life? The more famous his stories grew, he had to offer more evidence, and more cracks started to appear. And he had to keep inventing his web of lies so the entire house of cards that he made up so far didn’t come crashing down? And more importantly, did Frank Dux tell the story how he wanted to be, rather than how his life actually was? What if he just did that? There are many theories, most questioning the truth of his evidence, but of late some highlighting the credibility of Frank’s stories, but we’ll never know the truth. Unless at a ripe old age, conscience drives Fran Dux to provide a true account of his claims, with most of the minute details faded away into oblivion by then.
It’s been nearly thirty years since Bloodsport was released. The story of Frank Dux reached the peak of its popularity and was soon forgotten. Apart from some now middle-aged Gen X nostalgics who reminisce the name to their teenage years and how things have suddenly changed. The myths of their early years are broken, the legends turn out to be mere mortals…the facts keep on surfacing. There’s nowhere to hide. Ultimately, Frank Dux lied about all his army decorations and martial art conquests. It cannot be condoned, especially when he earned a lot of favours on the back of these claims. But in a time when we hear many more lies every day from the people we trust, I’d raise a glass to Frank W. Dux and say, “Your story may well be a lie, but it helped many to believe in themselves, that they can do impossible things, if only they persevere”. Perhaps the Frank Dux in real life is an imposter, but his persona on the screen will remain as a legend for a generation of viewers. After all, he will always be remembered as the master of the Dim Mak!