How I Ended This Summer Review
How I Ended This Summer is the third feature from Aleksey Popogrebskiy following Koktebel (which attracted critical acclaim and a UK theatrical/DVD release) and Simple Things (which could only manage the acclaim). It arrives on British Blu-ray having done the rounds on the festival circuit, picking up various awards along the way including a Silver Bear in Berlin for its two lead actors and Best Film at last year’s London Film Festival. It’s certainly deserving of both, yet How I Ended This Summer is not the kind of work to draw attention to itself. It impresses, but quietly. A two-hander set in a remote location, this is a film that relies on detail and directorial control: a careful and deliberate tightening and loosening of its grip on the audience. Not quite a character study and not quite a thriller, it sits somewhere between the two, taking the best elements from each to create a tense but considered two hours that sidesteps the usual clichés and contrivances.
The remote location is a weather monitoring station in the Arctic. Manned by just two individuals, it becomes the sole focus of How I Ended This Summer as a few days occupy its two-hour running time. Without a voice-over or much in the way of dialogue we must get to know these two men through the merest scraps of information. One is considerably younger than the other, surely no older than very early twenties. He dons an earring and a Star Wars T-shirt, plays videogames during his downtime and is almost permanently attached to his Walkman/iPod. He’s also the more energetic of the two, treating the station as pretty much a playground but also fidgety and far less patient than his senior. Indeed, the other man is many years in the job, a veteran of this remote outpost; the perfect example of experience to counter the younger’s naïveté. He’s also married and the father of a young son, a detail that will become far more significant as the film develops…
For the first half an hour How I Ended This Summer simply follows the two men as they work. (Non-working or -waking hours are time-lapsed out of existence.) We watch as they take readings around the station and then communicate that information via their crackly radio. We also pick up on the elements which could lead the film into thriller territory: the isolated landscape; the unforgiving nature of that landscape; the fact that both men carry guns with them during their rounds; talk of deaths that occurred at the station some years ago; even the violent shoot-’em-up videogames can be seen as a pre-cursor to genuine violence in this environment. All the ‘tools’ for a thriller are in place, all we need is the trigger. Approximately thirty minutes in it arrives with the news that the older man’s wife and child are in “grave” condition following an accident. The news is communicated to the younger of the two so that he may pass it on. Except he seems unable to handle such an important task.
Despite the guns, the isolation and the rest, Popogrebskiy is reluctant to move into genre territory. Yet such a move is always a threat and so, in its own particular way, How I Ended This Summer is just as tense as any conventional thriller. It could spill over into violence, but that’s not to say that it necessarily will; the mere possibility is enough for its writer-director to toy with his audience and slowly tighten and loosen the grip he has created. Scene after scene bristles with what could be: will the young man reveal the news, how will the older man react, does he already know? And each is expertly handled, not simply in terms of tension, but also the manner in which they fit into this strange landscape of metallic colours and outdated technologies. This strangeness - at times almost otherworldly - cannot help but intensify such moments; with so little that is familiar, what else is there to grasp onto but the human drama?
In refusing to connect wholeheartedly with genre filmmaking, How I Ended This Summer thereby leaves itself enough room to allow such human dramas to sufficiently develop. The news of the older man’s wife and son is not introduced solely to invite some conflict into these characters’ lives, it’s also there so that we may gauge their reactions on a more emotional level. The turmoil faced by the younger man as he avoids breaking the news is fascinating to watch. Of course, much of this is also done without recourse to dialogue which only makes Grigoriy Dobrygin’s performance all the more remarkable. In comparison Sergey Puskepalis has less to do, but it’s a similarly excellent turn nonetheless. Pleasingly the two men remain men throughout the film, never once descending into ciphers merely there to perform what a typical thriller would expect. The psychology rings true at all times, and therefore so does the film itself.
With that said, How I Ended This Summer would probably gain were it to lose about twenty minutes or so of running time. Despite the ever-present tension, the slow-burn techniques employed may test some viewers, particularly during the early stages. The other flaw comes with the more up-tempo sections of Dmitriy Katkhanov’s score. Unlike his more brooding contributions, these parts never quite sit well with the overall mood of the film and feel especially ill-at-ease when supposedly emanating from the younger man’s Walkman/iPod - put simply they just don’t sound like a young man’s music, rather they sound like they’re trying to be a young man’s music. Nevertheless, such issues are minor considerations in a mostly excellent production. How I Ended This Summer has style, depth and plenty of surprises. Ordinarily such a film would come with a warning urging the viewer not to expect any genre thrills, but in this instance such words aren’t really all that necessary. The manner in which it toys with and subverts such expectations is very much a part of its strength so, by all means, check out this cracking thriller. Except it isn’t. But kind of is.
New Wave Films have released How I Ended This Summer onto both Blu-ray and DVD in the UK, a welcome move considering the film’s US and Australian distributors opted for standard definition only. The Blu-ray was supplied for review purposes and is a mostly pleasing affair. Encoded for Region B and presented in 1080i, the disc retains the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and offers both DTS-HD 5.1 and LPCM Stereo options for the soundtrack. English subtitles are optional. How I Ended This Summer was made using the RED digital camera (the remoteness of the location prevented film from being an option) and utilised extensive colour correction in post-production. The palette - consisting heavily of steely blues and rusted browns and reds - is ably recreated on disc, although moderate compression artefacts do makes themselves known during a couple of scenes. Detail is consistently impressive, however, and the image remains as crisp and clean as should be expected from such a new production. The latter is just as fitting a description for the soundtrack, which ably copes with the balance between Dmitriy Katkhanov’s score and the more natural sounds of the film’s unforgiving landscape.
The main extra is exclusive to New Wave’s release, a 40-minute Q&A session with writer-director Aleksey Popogrebskiy chaired by Ian Christie and hosted at the BFI Southbank. The running time is split almost exactly between an interview with Christie and questions from the audience. In both cases Popogrebskiy proves himself to be an interesting figure, discussing both the film at hand (and its production difficulties) and the current state of Russian filmmaking. Moreover, many of the questions on the lips of the audience are likely to be matched by the viewer and therefore there’s a great deal to be taken away from this piece. (As with the main feature the Q&A is presented in 1080i.) Also present on the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer.