KVIFF 2018: Crystal Swan

Stylish Belarus comedy Crystal Swan, which follows a young woman trying to escape her homeland, is sometimes hard to laugh at due to its darker moments

Film Review by Jamie Dunn | 04 Jul 2018
Film title: Crystal Swan
Director: Darya Zhuk
Starring: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yury Borisov, Svetlana Anikey, Ilya Kapanets

The kooky scenario at the heart of vibrant Belarus comedy Crystal Swan, the debut film from Darya Zhuk, could be lifted from a Seinfeld episode. Alina Nasibullina plays Velya, a former law student who now moonlights as a DJ in a warehouse festooned with statues of Soviet heroes like Stalin and Lenin. This is 1996 Minsk, and the venue presumedly doubles as a storage facility for public artworks being removed in the country’s decommunisation process following the fall of the Soviet Union.

Velya, who we first see wearing a blue, Louise Brooks-style wig, wants nothing more than to escape Minsk to chase the American Dream in Chicago, the home of her beloved house music. Her stern mother disapproves. “One should stay in her motherland,” Velya hears her complain to a friend. The Belarus government aren’t exactly keen on its people abandoning the motherland either. Fearing an exodus to the West, it’s still extremely difficult for a citizen to get hold of a travel visa in 1996, particularly if, like Velya, you have no regular employment and only have enough cash in your account for a one-way ticket.

Our spiky heroine's solution is a scheme worthy of George Costanza: she gives the Belarus consulate a phony job title – she claims she manages a crystal factory in the provinces. The consulate buys the ruse, they just need to call the factory to confirm her salary, but the phone number Velya put on her counterfeit letter of employment goes to a random residential home in the area.

Velya is a hustler extraordinaire and not about to let a little thing like reality get in the way of her dream. With money borrowed from her heroin-using best friend, she packs an overnight bag and goes in hunt of the phone at the end of the number she gave to the authorities, her plan being to be on the other end when they call to confirm her charade.

From this goofy premise, Zhuk’s spins a compelling drama. When Velya tracks down the phone in the backwaters, she finds it belongs to a family of rednecks. The rambunctious clan includes a mother half deaf from grinding crystal all her life, a father who uses TNT to catch hake at the local lake, and a sweet young boy whom she bonds with over dance music. There’s also the cocky older brother whose wedding the house is being readied for, although he’d clearly rather help Velya with her quest than spend time with his fiancé.

Crystal Swan has a pleasing bounce. Post-Soviet Belarus is hardly the most glamourous of settings, but Zhuk’s use of colour and music makes it sparkle. The director is continually placing the indefatigable Velya, who’s often seen swaddled in an oversized scarf the same color as her DJing wig, against a vibrant canvas as if life exudes from her. While the art direction is candy coloured, our hero is more acerbic. She knows what she wants, and she doesn’t care who she uses to get her way, shamelessly insinuating herself in the household. File her alongside the title character from Peter Mackie Burns's Daphne and Paula from Léonor Serraille's Jeune Femme, other recent self-centred female protagonists whom you can't help rooting for.

The movie is at once sweet and salty. The style is effervescent and the dialogue has a screwball zip, but the mood itself is rather melancholy. Zhuk takes the film to some dark places. Velya’s interactions with her mother are lacerating. Like the proud new Belarus state, she’s disgusted her daughter doesn’t want to help rebuild the homeland. The rural family that she insinuates herself in, meanwhile, begins the movie as lovable eccentrics but by the end prove poisonous.

Zhuk brushes off these darker episodes too lightly. A chaotic fistfight at the wedding towards the end of the film seems to be included for its slapstick potential, but it’s hard to laugh at this brood when we’ve seen what some of its members are capable of. What keeps us engaged, though, is Nasibullina’s steely, charismatic performance. Even when it looks impossible, you don’t doubt her character will succeed. Zhuk’s film gives no firm answers either way, but our money is on this force of nature making it to the Windy City.

Crystal Swan had its world premiere at the 53rd Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it competes in the East of the West Competition