Tuesday, November 14, 2006


World Cinema Category
Cinema 1, Greenbelt 1
November 3 - 16, 2006

This Russian film explores a band of young Army recruits who are set to fight in the Afghan war during the Soviet invasion of the country in the 1980s. The film is based on events which took place in early 1988 during the last large-scale Soviet military operation "Magistral". This particular army company is said to have been "forgotten" by the military command because of the Soviet withdrawal. A bloody battle which cost them dearly with many casualties.

The film starts with the usual introduction of the various characters, during their rigid training in the rough terrain of Uzbekistan up to their fierce battle on top of the mountains in barren Afghanistan against a forcefully menacing and well hidden enemy, the Mujahideens. It is a realistically convincing movie about a war that not many people have had access to, fought in the 80s when the Soviet Union was still a force to be reckoned with. The brutal often crude training of the army recruits was very harsh and almost inhuman yet the camaraderie that forms between the young guys is sealed by a strong bond. Character development is well established although I have to admit it is a bit daunting to remember names and faces since it seems to me that they all look alike. A fact I have often noticed when I watch foreign films. Maybe it is because the language is completely alien and I have to read subtitles to get a feel of how each character is fleshed out.

Anyways, the film picks up once they get to Afghanistan. The very minute they step off the plane, an intense explosive scene sets the ball rolling. A jaw dropping shot of the arid terrain of Afghanistan provides great visual of the locale. The tiny village, the treacherous mountains with hidden caves that weave like a snake and the Russian army's barracks are all well portrayed. But sometimes some random scene enters the frame out of nowhere that catches you by surprise like the shot where their training commander is crying while he sits in a field of bright red flowers. Loud blaring music pierces your ear drums for some dramatic effect just when you least expect it. The film deals with a sensitive theme - war. So naturally, gory scenes of bullets flying everywhere and bodies ripped apart and falling down like dominoes abound. The battle scenes are well executed but they tend to have this Rambo like effect and can take the tone of a grade B (American) movie. The enemy are mostly caricatures of some men wearing turbans and flowing capes who pop in and out of some hidden caves to kill the Russians. We are not given a good sense of what exactly the Mujahideens are fighting for and it seems neither did the Soviet army have a good insight on their enemy. All they are told is to be vigilant and fully alert. The final battle scene is a bit ridiculous but I guess the director wanted to show the desperation of the 9th company when they were being overwhelmed from all corners by the Mujahideens. Their appeal for help and reinforcement fell on deaf ears as the Soviet Union had already withdrew from Afghanistan.

This film is said to receive mixed reactions from the veterans of that war, who pointed to a number of inaccuracies. It was directed by Fyodor Bondarchuk, the son of classic Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk, whose 1959 Destiny of a Man was a landmark in film treatments of World War II and who also shot an Oscar-winning epic, based on Leo Tolstoy's novel War and Peace. In 2006, Russia nominated the movie for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

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