Wednesday, April 14, 2010

REVIEW: The Sword Bearer

The Sword Bearer (Mechenosets)
Director: Filipp Yankovsky
Year 2006

The Sword Bearer is a unique and beautifully shot Russian fantasy film about a man with super powers who uses them in a very human way. This is not the over the top type of super hero film where the good guy fights the obvious bad guy in black as they try to take over the world. Instead it's a more personal piece, focusing in on what it is like to be different in a world where being such is not appreciated and often persecuted. I was very lucky to stumble upon Hans' blog over at Quiet Cool where he gives a poetic review of this film, making me instantly hunt for the DVD and view it for myself.  And boy am I glad I did. This is a very special film with an elegant pace that rewards the viewer with an intimate look into an overwrought mind.

Our troubled hero as he bandages his hand.

The story starts out with a crime scene that is beyond comprehension. A logger truck has been decimated and its timber has been slashed in two with some kind of powerful blade. The truck driver is delirious and we are left with quite a mystery on what actually happened at the scene prior to us and the police arriving there. We are then transported to an open ocean with a boat passing across the horizon and we are then introduced to our main character named Sasha, played by an Adrian Brody double with a cool demeanor named Artyom Tkachenko. He is wrapping his hand up with a cloth and we are in the dark as to what has happened to his hand. There are a lot of mysterious elements throughout this film where you're not sure on what is really going on and what people's intentions are, but I think that this is half of the appeal of this film. You are left to figure it out on your own and in the process you grow with this character as he finds himself. 

A stunningly symmetric composition
with amazing contrasting visuals.

Throughout the beginning of the film we are presented with some rather intense moments that show us the raw personality of Sasha. He is accosted by a group of men for talking to the man's girlfriend. Sasha is beaten and left feeling slighted, so he proceeds to enact his revenge on the group of pricks. Viciously, Sasha meets up with the group of men and unleashes a furious set of blows with a metal pole that send the thugs to the hospital and a one way ticket to life supportville. This counter attack by Sasha is so brutal and a bit over board for what they had done to him, but this just lets us know that Sasha is someone who is a bit of a loose cannon of sorts. We'll find out just how short a fuse he has in later segments.

In all its brutality, there is a certain poetic nature to the film. It's beautifully rendered by Tkachenko and each frame is blasted with a heavenly color palette that projects a warm glow that sets the story in a fantastically vivid world.

Sasha just chilling with his pigeon friend.

Each encounter that he has ends in dire consequences. You almost get the sense that there is something mentally wrong with Sasha. He seems to lash out at anything that moves, but deep within the hidden narrative of the film, there are hints to his madness and concrete reasonings on why he is committing these heinous acts of violence. He attacks those men because he was attacked. The first altercation is quite straightforward and reasonable, but the next couple of incidences are rather tricky and need looked into with a closer eye to the details.

There is a sequence on where he visits his estranged father and delivers a swift payback for years of abuse given to him and his mother. We are not given any information on why he has waited so long to take revenge, but we are just led to believe that this was the right place and time to bring on his punishment. Perhaps Sasha felt it was time because he was reminiscing on those horrible memories when he was a child, much like how he remembered the time as a boy when he tried to lop off his wrist by placing his hand on a train track as a locomotive proceeded to barrel towards him. This vivid memory sparked him to try to accomplish that same sick goal as he tries to chop his hand off again, but in present time. We are shown him hacking away at something, but in the next scene we are shown that he is fully intact with both hands. It's all rather curious and leaves many mysteries lingering in the rain saturated air. Is this all being played out in his head? Is he truly a disturbed person that is mentally damaged? At this point we have no clue, but the struggle that Sasha is going through is quite moving and allows us to suspend our curiosity and just wait to see things pan out.

An obscure shot of a rain soaked city.

Sasha's life seems an endless cycle of botched meetings and awkward interactions that always leave him battling to keep control of his violent emotions, that is until the day he meets a woman by the name of Katya, played by a stunningly flawless Chulpan Khamatova. The two meet in a stairwell of an apartment building and instantly hit it off. I mean instantly, like they are in her apartment in two seconds flat and are bumping ugly if you know what I mean. Now this seems shallow on the surface and quite out of place for the doom and gloom film that we have been following for a good portion of this film, but after viewing the whole piece in its entirety I've come to think of this first meeting as a resurrection of sorts for Sasha's soul and inner peace. He has found the first person in this whole movie that accepts him instantly and trusts him without question.

I'll admit that it's an over the top moment, but one that I think the director purposely set it up to be. He threw all of those powerful feelings of falling in love for the first time and bottled it all into one inspiring moment where the two spend their first night together. The entire sequence is filmed so beautifully and every interaction between both Sasha and Katya are so magical that their chemistry really shines through in their performances and you can't help feel happy for the two that they've found each other.

The moment Sasha meets Katya. Love is
in the air and there's a whole lot of sex too.

It's at these moments that the film finally finds its center and it builds a foundation between the two characters that propels the film into a different category, giving it purpose and direction. The bond that Sasha and Katya form in such a short time is rather sweet in its simplicity and gives the film much needed heart. I love obscure films like these that have no other agenda then to showcase love in its purest and simplest form and the director conveys these feelings in such an exquisite way that it truly is breathtaking in parts. You can feel the change in Sasha as he turns from an out of control time bomb, to a calm and loving man who is devoted to a woman he has just met.

A gorgeously shot scene where we
get to see the gentle side of Sasha.

These tender moments are later disrupted by forces that continue to try to bring Sasha to justice for the wrong doings he's done in the past, both through a karma like sense and through actual people that he has effected attempting to take his life. One of these instances is when Katya's boyfriend catches both Sasha and Katya together in bed. He is furious and grabs his gun, but Sasha knocks him out by smashing a chair over his head. They tie him up and leave him as they take his car to another town. It's not really clear on the relationship status of Katya and this jealous boyfriend, but from the way he reacts with the gun and his upcoming actions towards the two, we are given the impression that he is not such a nice guy.

The enraged boyfriend catches up with Sasha and Katya and he brings a burly friend along to deal some sweet revenge. He traps Katya in the car as Sasha is out getting a few drinks for the two to share. He forces himself onto Katya and demands she kiss him like she kissed Sasha. Noticing the tussle in the car, Sasha jumps into action and man does he go crazy. In less then a second, the big man is down and the boyfriend is pulled from the car and launched onto the hood. Sasha then proceeds to bash the man's head in, cracking the windshield with the force of the blows. Then suddenly a blade comes jutting out from Sasha's wrist and he drives it hard into the man's skull, letting the blade poke through the glass, sending a sickening crunch to reverberate inside the car. The impact of the blow leaves a thick pool of blood that cakes the glass in its gory residue. These graphic images of Sasha defending Katya are visceral in appearance and we see the old Sasha, yet it is different because he is doing it out of love. He only unleashed his anger when it was able to save someone he cares about and this is the difference between his selfish attempts at fulfilling his personal vendettas against the people that wronged him in his life.

A graphic display of chivalry by Sasha.

At this point the young lovers are at a crossroad. Will Katya run away after now seeing Sasha's darker side and his unique ability or will she still accept him for what he is? This choice determines whether Sasha will slip into his old ways by being shunned once again from society or it will continue to change him for the better making him feel like he belongs. The concept of a person balancing you out is an interesting one and one I think that resembles the embedded meaning of the concept of soul mates. This idea that two halves come together to make one whole is in theory an amazing thing and it's proven by how different the two of them are when they are apart compared to when they are together. Without each other Sasha is lost and disconnected from the rest of the world, while Katya is in a seemingly abusive and loveless relationship, also lost in the world. Together they become new people, yet they are destined to fail because of their past lives where they were led astray. This whole film lays out a plot like a greek tragedy where the main characters are doomed to fail, even when Katya decides to continue to be with Sasha to the bitter end.

Cars fly by Sasha and Katya's secret hideout.

One of the boldest choices by the director is to down play the whole super power of Sasha's by focusing more on the human story that is unfolding between both Sasha and Katya. The fact that Sasha can produce a steel blade out of his right wrist is put on the back burner so we can carry the story on through their relationship. Even when Sasha's blade is out, we are only given quick glimpses of the thing, and we are never fully aware of how or why he has this strange ability. I for one commend the choice of centering the story around the characters then centering it around a specific power of one of them. This actually breaks the film out of the mold of a super hero type film and pushes it out into more dramatic territory as we are drawn into the intimate relations of the two characters. Sasha never accepts his special gift and revels in the fact that this is a burden that he has to bare. I find that a hell of a lot more interesting then a kid swinging from rooftops saving no names, like with Spiderman, or a three-bladed beast man running around acting all pissed off, like in Wolverine, where I believe a little bit of inspiration was taken by The Sword Bearer. In my opinion, I think they went in the right direction by focusing on the inner struggle of the character then relying on a plot device that has been done to death by hollywood.

The couple peacefully hold each other as a Toyota
Highlander accelerates out of control in the background.
Damn you Toyota!

This inner struggle that the director has opted for, brings a visual style that keeps the story close to the heart and in the minds of the characters. We are given personal shots of the characters as they are shown thinking about each other later on in the film, when they are taken apart by yet another strike from destinies cruel hands. After a horrendous car accident, the two are split apart with Sasha being taken into police custody and Katya being taken to a mental institution. The time that they are apart is excruciating for the two and each remember back on the good times and wonder if the other is alive. These sequences are beautifully shot and well acted as we are treated to a montage of sorts with Sasha and Katya given intertwining scenes of dialogue between their captors.

A heavenly shot of Katya locked in
her room at the mental institution.

There is another scene that really stands out in my mind and it's when Sasha is transported to his prison cell, but is greeted by a group of thugs that have been ordered to make his life a living hell. They circle him and then hold him down while the main thug prepares to beat the living crap out of him. We then cut to a shot of the prison guards playing a game of cards only to hear blood curdling sounds of men screaming at the top of their lungs. The sounds that they make just chills your bones and we follow the guards down to the cell where Sasha is and we're presented with a shot of a bloody Sasha standing at the door, otherwise untouched.

This scene is just amazing and resembles the prison scene from Zack Snyder's 2009 super hero film, Watchmen. In that film, the character Rorschach is sent to prison where he is put in a cell with a bunch of thugs that he's done wrong to earlier in his life. Rorschach says to the thugs that, "None of you understand. I'm not locked up in here with you; you're locked up in here with me." After saying this line he proceeds to beat the holy hell out of everyone inside. Whether the director got this idea from the graphic novel that Watchmen was based on or if he created this scene from his own mind, I rather enjoyed The Sword Bearers offerings more because of the silent aspect of Sasha's character and how he doesn't threaten and just does what is needed. It's more compelling and fits with the overall tone of the film. Sasha is a bad-ass, but he doesn't advertise it, in fact he's rather covert about it and to me that is far more intriguing.

The aftermath of Sasha's prison brawl.
Sasha 1, Inmates 0

If I had to choose one thing about this film that I enjoyed the most it would have to be the visuals. They are just so stunning and wonderfully shot, that not one frame is unattractive. Each detailed composition is accompanied by such visual mastery that it's a pleasure to behold and it accents the world that the director has created with a view that really leaves an impact. The eye candy is stupendous and it allows you to get lost in the world and believe the unbelievable as it's presented in this colorful medium.

A hauntingly surreal shot of Katya lost in a dream.

The music is also very effective in conveying the dreamlike quality of these two lover's worlds. The moving classical piece that is continued and adapted as the film progresses is a captivating score that reflects the struggles of both characters as they look for love, find love, and ultimately fall to heartbreak as their destinies are played out. It's a tragic story accompanied by an equally sorrow filled composition that rounds out the overall package that you get with this fantastic film.

The score really comes into its own as Sasha breaks free from his captors as they are transporting him from the prison in an armored car and he approaches a cliff along the side of the ocean. He reaches the great precipice and shouts Katya's name hoping that she can hear it wherever she is. The music reflects the futile gesture perfectly and it carries an overbearing sense of doubt that they will ever find each other again. It's a sad and desperate moment that hits home for anyone that has lost a love, not knowing if it will ever come back into their life.

Sasha reaches the edge of the cliff with blade drawn.

As I said before, this film resembles a greek tragedy with our character's pursuing a life that can never be. We watch as they struggle to sustain this dream, only to know that it will come crashing down at any moment. We are hinted at this unspoken demise, as Katya cries in her bed while Sasha tries to repent his sins to a priest. In a way, they both know the ending to this tale, but they still want to see it through to the end. Both characters view their time spent together as precious and they're not willing to let go even in these waning and fleeting hours.

A tender moment between the two fugitives.

As the film approaches its grim conclusion, the colors of the composition begin to warm to an almost 'setting of the sun' type of look. We are given orange and yellow hues as if the story was coming to an end much like how the sun closes the day with its brilliant last ditch effort of radiant light. This subtle detail that the director infuses into the film, packs an emotional punch and you really feel the closing chapter of this epic love story as it anticipates the coming of dusk. Never is this more apparent then in this desperately sorrowful ending scene as Sasha uses his last remaining strength to keep Katya safe from harm. It's a commendable effort and one that really solidifies his character as a decent and loving person, far from his revenge driven mindset that we were introduced to in the beginning of this film. We are given a really special character driven journey in The Sword Bearer, and one that witnesses the inspiring rebirth of our main character in his love for another.

A ravishing climax to a compelling film about love and destiny.

The Sword Bearer is a splendid surprise and one that delivers a story filled with fantastic moments and spectacular chemistry between the two main characters of Sasha and Katya. The relationship that grows on screen is really something to behold and the journey that our characters take as they desperately try to escape their fate is a stupendous diversion of a story that we've seen hundreds of times. This modern day greek tragedy is created with such love by its filmmakers that all their efforts are paid in full by all the hard work and passion that the actors threw into their roles to play the doomed lovers. This film is highly recommended to anyone that enjoys a spiritual ride through life and love that always seems at the brink of collapsing. Not from the lovers lack of commitment, but by fate itself as it clings to their sides and pulls them to their ultimate and final destination. This film is an undiscovered gem that needs to be viewed and experienced by far more people.

4 out of 5 stars       A Compelling Tragedy About Love and Love Lost.

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