Thursday 14 August 2008

Kontroll (2003)

We're in the Budapest underground system in this Hungarian film, and it's as intriguing a location for a movie as the Paris Metro and I'm pretty sure first time writer/director Nimród Antal has seen Subway. Quite a lot of the film is shot at night within the system after it's shut down and that really helps the otherworldly atmosphere generated. We never see the surface and it's not difficult to believe that some of the central characters never do either. Our lead, Bulcsú, even sleeps on an underground platform, though we get hints midway through the film that he had a very successful life on the surface at some point in the past that he's trying to escape from.

Our heroes are the ticket inspectors, the Kontroll of the title, who are far from the stereotypical On the Buses sort of inspectors. These are hard living loveable misfit types who look like hard living loveable misfit types. They dress like regular folks and only put on their armbands when they board a train and start checking tickets, which on the Budapest underground system is not the simple job you'd expect it to be.

It can't hurt that we follow what appears to be the runt crew of the litter, as they patrol the south line. Bulcsú seems to be the leader of the crew as he seems to be the leader of anything, not through choice but just by default. There's an air of mystery that hangs over him like a cloak. His crew is small: there's just five of them. There's the large and lumbering Muki, who is angry and narcoleptic; and the quiet, perpetually restrained Professor who nothing seems to faze. There's also Tibi, the new and pretty clueless guy, two weeks in to the job, and a fifth member whose name I perpetually seemed to miss.

They have a hell of a time of it. Just checking tickets on one train they run into no end of trouble customers: a paranoid schizophrenic, a large flamboyant and very fresh gay, a pimp with a couple of girls from his stable, an unmuzzled and loud dog, even a girl in a pear shaped bear suit. Some customers stutter, some have no voice at all. Some threaten with needles, some with words. Some have become legend, like a young punk called Bootsie, who the inspectors have been after for a long time but who continually seems to get through and past them. There's even a huge hooded guy who pushes people under trains.

The film runs through a lot of emotions. It seems strange to use words like 'rich' and 'sumptuous' when describing a dirty underground world where the lights keep flickering in and out of life, but those are the ones that spring to mind when describing the story. It's a ride, but not it's a ride where you check your brain at the gate and just experience; it's a ride that floods over you in fascinating waves, throwing little stories at you from every direction but so cleverly that they all form a coherent and fascinating whole.

It's a tough but tender film, surreal and symbolic but also firmly rooted in reality. Bulcsú and his crew go through a heck of a lot in what is just short of a couple of hours for us but still only a few days for them. Yet in that time, if I'm reading the subtext right, Bulcsú fights not just thugs and a rival crew run by the asskissing Gonzó, but his own inner demons, and finds romance too, in the form of the mysterious girl in the bear suit who is the daughter of a colourful train driver.

Bulcsú even plays Gonzó at a dangerous game called railing, in which they run along the track behind the last passenger train of the night, hopefully dodging the live rails and the various cables and conduits, while hopefully completing the run quick enough to not get wiped out by the Midnight Special following on behind without ever stopping at a station. It could easily be inferred that this entire film, Bulcsú's underground life, could be seen as a longer, less focused version of the same game. What a fascinating, quirky and delightful film, made by and with absolutely nobody I've heard of, though some of these people are cool enough to have double umlaut names.

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