Alexei Balabanov, the first internationally-acclaimed post-Soviet Russian director (in that he made his debut after the collapse of the USSR), ranks alongside Lars Von Trier as being one of the most genuinely provocative and original talents currently working in world cinema - and, like his Danish counterpart, he tends to split critics and audiences right down the middle, not least at home, where Brother (1997) caused a huge row for its alleged glamourisation of the Russian mafia (by all accounts, the impact was similar to that of Natural Born Killers in the West, and for much the same reasons), and the later, considerably weirder Of Freaks and Men (1998) caused outrage at the St Petersburg Film Festival and had great difficulty finding a Russian distributor (in fact, I'm not at all sure it ever found one!).
Brother is the third Balabanov feature I've seen to date, and on the face of it it's much more conventional than the other two - both Happy Days (1992) and Of Freaks and Men were set roughly at the turn of the 20th century, and shot in a deliberately archaic style that offered more than a token nod to the silent era: we're talking arthouse cinema with a vengeance.
Though Brother turned out to have many points in common: long, static takes; slow, portentous fade-outs; muted, almost sepia-toned colour - and two or three of the St Petersburg locations are starting to look very familiar! - there are also significant differences: it's set in the mid-1990s, the lively soundtrack is made up of contemporary Russian rock and pop as opposed to the scratchy Mussorgsky and Prokofiev recordings Balabanov has favoured elsewhere and the pacing is considerably faster.
Danila (Sergei Bodrov Jr, best known in the West for starring in his namesake father's acclaimed Prisoner of the Mountains) is a drifter, a layabout and a loser, and after getting into one scrape too many his long-suffering mother packs him off to St Petersburg, to stay with his rather more successful older brother Viktor (Viktor Sokhurov, who's played sinister bald maniacs in all three Balabanov features mentioned above).
As the DVD cover rather gives away, though, Viktor's success comes at a price - he's a hitman for the Russian mafia, and Danila quickly gets sucked into a whole range of morally dubious schemes that, as the film implies none too subtly, are just about the only way one can get ahead in Russia these days (Viktor constantly talks in business metaphors, which is a bit of a giveaway).
So far so straightforward, but Balabanov couldn't make a run-of-the-mill thriller any more than Lars Von Trier could make a conventional hospital soap opera (ever seen The Kingdom?), and Brother is constantly going off into strange, unpredictable areas that very much link this film to his others.
It's full of quirky touches such as the cut from a savage beating to a ridiculous-looking lapdog (think a squashed Dougal from The Magic Roundabout) scurrying under a chair, or the regular appearance of a tram with oddly disturbing scooped-out insides (of course, this may be a perfectly normal tram design for St Petersburg, but the effect on Western eyes is decidedly surreal), or Danila's obsession with improving his knowledge of contemporary Russian pop music, which occasionally overrides somewhat more pressing matters.
This latter element is helped enormously by Bodrov's winning performance: throughout the film, his lazy, almost horizontally laid-back manner contrasts neatly with the intensity of almost everyone else, from his mother to numerous mafiosi and party animals. He's also a complex, contradictory figure, given to casual prejudices (he's openly anti-Semitic) but also capable of genuine kindness (defending a German tramp from assault and subsequently befriending him), despite the fact that he ultimately turns out to be a rather more effective operator than his brother when it comes to the body-count department.
Balabanov apparently doesn't rate the film that highly - it's clear that his heart is far more bound up in his more off-the-wall features (though he clearly appreciated its huge commercial success - a sequel in which Danila goes to settle old scores in the US is on its way!) - but on its own terms Brother is enormously entertaining, quite apart from the undoubted fascination (to Western audiences, anyway) of seeing a contemporary Russian thriller actually made by Russians and not filtered through the Hollywood distorting mirror - most other Russian films to have managed international distribution in the last decade or so have tended to be costume dramas like Burnt By The Sun and The Barber of Siberia or semi-ethnographic trips to remote rural areas (Urga, Prisoner of the Mountains), and this couldn't be more different! Unlike many of his peers, Balabanov knows that in order to survive in a post-Soviet film industry you have to compete with Hollywood action movies on their own terms - and it's greatly to his credit that he's managed to do this while still giving the film a distinctive flavour of its own.
This is the first Russian-label DVD I've seen, so I had no idea what to expect - but in the event I was very pleasantly surprised. Although advertised as "standard" on the box, which implied 4:3, it turned out to be letterboxed at 1.66:1 (clearly Balabanov's favourite aspect ratio: his two other features use it too), and it's an admirably sharp, clear, artefact-free transfer from a print that's in excellent physical condition (a couple of minuscule spots and scratches, but no more than you'd get with any other recent film). I didn't see Brother in the cinema, but going from Of Freaks and Men it's probably safe to assume the faded, sepia-toned colours are entirely deliberate. It's not anamorphic, but it looked absolutely fine on my widescreen TV's 14:9 mode: there was even a reasonable amount of shadow detail during the darker scenes.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1 (there's a Dolby 2.0 alternative for those less endowed in the speaker department), and for the most part it's very effective indeed - memorable surround moments include the camera panning around a room with a pool table, with the balls ricocheting from speaker to speaker, a thunderstorm in a graveyard at night, and two live concert sequences that are so loud I was surprised I didn't get complaints from the neighbours (the dynamic range overall is much wider than the relatively low-key opening scenes would suggest).
The music in particular comes across with impressive clarity and separation - though what prevents me from giving this full marks is a surprisingly inept bit of mixing during a party sequence at round about the 65-minute mark plus occasional similar problems at other points, though these are very minor defects in the overall scheme of things. But all in all this is miles better than I was expecting, and I've seen plenty of Western films (even very recent ones) that are considerably less accomplished. There are eighteen chapter stops, which is plenty for a 95-minute film, and the menu contains full-motion video clips.
Though both the soundtracks are in Russian, there are plenty of subtitle options, happily including English… though the term "English" is a tad over-generous, as these comfortably rank among the worst I've ever seen (and I'm a long-term connoisseur of the wilder excesses of Hong Kong subtitles, so this is no small claim!)
Virtually every sentence has something wrong with it, whether it's the peculiar grammar (the relative lack of definite and indefinite articles suggests the author was probably Russian) or idiosyncratic spelling (when his would-be girlfriend says "Oh! Pleer is cool! Give me to listen!", I assumed it was the name of the band that Danila was listening to on his portable CD player… until the penny dropped that she meant the player itself!).
That said, it would be churlish of me to pretend that they don't offer a fairly considerable extra layer of entertainment, whether it's a chat-up attempt ("Girl, how do you do?"), a cross-cultural debate ("Your american music is shet") or an example of what to say when vicious mafiosi jump you as you enter your flat ("Guys, I, probably, came in wrong place, probably, I have to go higher."), or indeed what to shout if threatened with potential gang rape ("Scums!") - and they don't seriously affect comprehension, the odd head-scratcher notwithstanding.
When you load up the DVD, it asks you to select Russian or English menus. Tantalisingly, the Russian menu appears to offer more extras, though in practice these amount to a list of other titles on the Amalgama label and a selection of single-screen print ads for Russian DVDs of such diverse titles as The Fifth Element, Elizabeth, The Game and Bertrand Tavernier's La Fille de D'Artagnan, so non-Cyrillic readers can rest assured that they're not missing much.
As for the more substantial extras common to both languages, there are brief biographies of Alexei Balabanov, Sergei Bodrov Jr and composer Vyacheslav Butusov (all written in the same eccentric English as the subtitles), and a tie-in three-minute music video ("After Rain") that's sung in unsubtitled Russian. Surprisingly, given the quality of the multi-track mix on the actual film soundtrack, the sound here is plain stereo and much less effective as a result - and the picture looks as though it was converted from a not especially high-definition video master. Still, it's a nice touch, and a handy all-in-one-place collection of the most memorable images from the film.
The final verdict? Well, it's my first Russian DVD, but on this evidence it certainly won't be my last. The disc under review was obtained from Spain, of all places, via the Mundo Laser site (many thanks to Hendrik for supplying the link) - at the time of writing, it's the only Russian DVD in their catalogue, but they're promising more in the future, and I'll keep an eye out for any developments on that score. Apparently Russian distributors are very keen on turning to DVD as a solution to the problem of getting international distribution - 35mm is just too expensive these days, because different prints have to be struck for each territory to service tiny releases (Brother played in just one cinema at a time during its brief UK run), whereas this DVD is comprehensible across most of Europe. I've seen a lot of fascinating rarities over the years in one-off festival screenings - how about an Uzbek spaghetti western? - and I'd love to have them in a more permanent form, so any initiative that improves their distribution on DVD is fine by me.