The Stoker [Kochegar]
Facts and Figures
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
The Stoker [Kochegar] Review
Russian filmmaker Balabanov has the ability to submerge us in his stories, cleverly blending complex characters and twisty storylines in ways that look remarkably simple. He also has a wonderfully artistic eye, and in this gently comical thriller he inventively re-creates a period barely 20 years in the past as an iconic time and place.
It's wintry St Petersburg in the 1990s, where the ageing Ivan (Skryabin) stokes the city's boiler-room fires. He's an ethnic Yakut who served with the Soviet army in Afghanistan and has been left shell-shocked by the experience. So he spends his down-time writing a novel about the appalling treatment of 19th century Yakuts in Russia. Ivan allows his old military colleague Mikhail (Mosin), who's now a gangster, to dispose of bodies in his fires. And he gives all his cash to his fashion-conscious daughter Sasha (Tumutova), who's in love with the hulking Bison (Matveyev). But she doesn't know that Bison's also having an affair with Mikhail's spoiled-brat daughter Masha (Korotayeva).
The film maintains a light tone with the help of a perky guitar score (the artist actually appears on TV at one point), while Balabanov and his cast create characters who are layered with blackly comical touches. Violence is dispensed dispassionately, and truths emerge without shocked reactions. Side characters add slightly surreal spin on things, including two young girls who watch Ivan's fire as if it's a gripping TV soap and two goons who live like they're in a gangster movie, cheating at cards and carrying a kalashnikov in a guitar case.
All of this is played out in a hilariously deadpan way, even as the film digs deeper into the social structure of the Russian empire, which was stolen from and built by oppressed ethnic minorities. The clear hint is that this legacy remains, eating away at the society from inside. And one day they're not going to take it so quietly. But Balabanov never shouts this themes: he remains quietly locked onto the characters, letting us see everything through their eyes. And even as we smile at the sometimes fatal twists and turns of the plot, we still get the point.