To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die Review
I don’t know how representative they are of Tajikistan cinema, or even if Tajikistan has its own cinema industry (To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die is a French co-production), but between Djamshed Usmonov and – perhaps surprisingly – Min Byung-hoon, a Korean director who studied filmmaking in Russia and has collaborated previously with Usmonov on The Flight of the Bee (1998), the two of them have covered quite a spectrum of topics on what it means to be an individual in a small remote part of the world – from family, history, folklore, tradition and culture and the conflict this has with the world outside, to the place of the individual within that community. In Usmonov’s previous film, Angel on the Right (2002), the focus was very much on duty, a specifically masculine duty related to being a son and to fatherhood, to the recognising of one’s responsibilities in spite of how they might conflict with one’s desires – the question boiling down to whether to take heed of the angel on the left shoulder noting down one’s bad deeds or chalk up a few good deeds to the angel on the right.
It’s a different kind of duty that 20 year-old Kamal (Khurshed Golibekov) has to fulfil, and it’s also a particularly masculine one, one that even determines whether he is truly a man or not - Kamal has not yet made love to his bride of six months, physically unable to consummate the marriage. He travels to the big city and stays with his cousin who it turns out has no such problems in this area, no doubts about his prowess or questions about the morality of his actions – it’s all about getting what you want. In many ways then To Get To Heaven is a coming-of-age film, but it’s about much more than a sexual rites of passage or a proof of masculinity, and as such it is related to themes in Angel on the Right (and indeed to the themes of Min Byung-hoon’s 2002 Uzbekistan located film Let’s Not Cry). Being connected with a boy from the small town becoming aware of the nature of the wider world outside, Kamal’s journey is about finding his place in the world and fitting in, about discovering himself in relation to his background and where he needs to go and the film explores the conflict that arises out of that. How does one reconcile one’s inner drives and desires with duty, behaviour and responsibility for one’s actions?
And boy, is Kamal driven. No sooner in the city than he is chasing every woman in sight, determined to do the deed and prove he is a man. He’s not even in the city when he makes his first advance to a woman on the train, and thereafter he follows women he casually encounters at the supermarket, at the library and even a girl he bumps up against on the bus, Vera (Dinara Drukarova), a clothing factory worker. Such is the single-minded nature of Kamal’s approach that it could be considered stalking where it not for the fact that his intentions seem to be benevolent. Or are they? He will step aside when his advances are repelled or when he finds out that the woman of his attentions is already married, but how far is he prepared to go to rid himself of his problem and his virginity? Where will his drives and impulses lead him? As with characters in the director’s last film, in order to get what he wants, Kamal finds himself mixed up with the wrong sort of people (Vera’s husband played by the familiar hard-edged face of Maruf Pulodzoda) and, through his insecurity and misplaced sense of duty, he feels indebted to them and gets involved in criminal activity that will ultimately provide him with a situation that will truly determine whether he is a man.
This turn of events takes the film into the area of Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment), marrying a story of crime and passion with a deeper reflection on more personal questions, but this fits in well with themes previously only alluded to in the director’s work, being focussed as it was on the nature and rhythms of smalltown life, and it’s handled here in a manner in keeping with the tone of the film. In The Get To Heaven First You Have To Die, Usmonov expands on his vision, taking those ideas and attitudes and applying them to the larger world outside – not just considering how they affect the individual and not just in a masculine context, but rather how the consequences of the actions of those individuals with power, influence and drive – male certainly – have a greater impact on society and on how women are regarded and treated.
To Get To Heaven First You Have To Die is released on DVD in the UK by Trinity. The DVD is in PAL format, and encoded for Region 2.
The film is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, is anamorphically enhanced and progressively transferred. On a small to average sized-screen it looks superb with few evident problems. The subdued tones of the film are presented beautifully, with natural colouration, particularly in skin tones, showing excellent detail and strong, satisfying black levels. The image is also clean, with no marks of any kind and flows smoothly. Larger screens and upscaling of the image may reveal the limitations of the master, showing some fuzziness and light grain around edges, perhaps the consequence of noise filtering, causing some motion blurring in low lit locations and some cross colouration.
The audio track is straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 and it is simple and effective, keeping the focus very much towards the centre with very little opening out of the mix. Clarity however is excellent, with a natural reverb and tone.
Subtitles are fixed on the transfer and cannot be removed. Since it’s hardly likely I’d ever want to dispense with the subtitles for the Tajik and Russian dialogue, I’d be inclined to be lenient on this were it not for the fact that the subtitles are slightly on the large side.
The only extra feature is the film’s original Trailer (1:44) presented anamorphically at 1.66:1. It gives a good idea of the content of the film, but perhaps shows a little too much. The same incidentally goes for the clips preceding the loading of the menu which you would be advised to skip past.
The difficulties of a young man fitting in the world have certainly been considered before in the films of Djamshed Usmonov, but mainly in the context of a small community, with the bigger issues facing the individual in the modern world outside only really alluded to off-screen. Here he directly and impressively confronts those wider issues and finds a perfect way to express the conflict within the individual versus the world around him, balancing it with a more conventional romance and crime thriller element that fully supports the theme rather than undermining the director’s customary low-key approach. Trinity’s presentation of the film is basic but good, with a clean, beautifully-toned, progressive and anamorphically enhanced transfer that has only minor limitations.