Sunday 28 June 2009

Night Watch (2004)

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Konstantin Khabenskiy

Like many, I've been fascinated by the supernatural and how it can interface with our reality of the present. In particular I've long wondered about how forces of light and darkness can war between themselves while we utterly fail to notice any of this happening around us. This Russian film, the highest grossing of all time at that point, identifies the supernatural among us as Others and splits them into Night Watch, the forces of light who keep watch on the night, and Day Watch, the forces of darkness who keep watch on the day. And then it weaves mythology around them.

This legend has it that one day these forces of light and dark met on a bridge and fought a bloody battle. Many died, from both sides, and only when Gesser, the Lord of the Night Watch, realised that the armies were equally matched and that if it continued as it was going they would all die to the last man, did he call a halt to proceedings. Gesser and Zavulon, his equivalent on the other side, agree to a truce, which has held ever since. Others can choose which side they want to fight for and both the light and the dark have to respect that. However there's a prophecy that calls for a last battle when key elements align, which time we naturally switch to.

It's now 1992 in Moscow and a man goes to a witch to get his wife back. He's Anton Gorodetsky and he'd been married for a whole two days before she left him for another man. The witch weaves some dark magic to win her back to him but points out that she's pregnant with another man's child and that it would only tear them apart again. She then explains that it can be terinated but there are consequences, and only because Anton doesn't believe any of it does he agree to take the sin of its death onto himself. What Anton doesn't realise is that he is an Other and as she starts the process and weird things begin to happen does he believe what she's talking about and ask for it all to stop.

Twelve years later, Anton is one of the Night Watch, a seer who has unpredictable visions of the future, and who plays his part in the ongoing standoff between light and darkness. We watch him as he tries to save a twelve year old boy from a couple of vampires, but this escalates into much more than just the life of one boy. Meanwhile a vortex has formed above a cursed woman that Anton meets on the subway, which is gradually engulfing the city. The repercussions of this are taxing the forces of light severely and the fate of one twelve year old boy would seem to be inconsequential, but I'm sure you can guess who the boy really is.

There's an fascinating amalgam of approaches here. The techniques are modern, fuelled by commercials and MTV and the ADHD generation. The action, and there is plenty of that, comes like a whirlwind but is controlled by speed set in post production rather than anything done by the actors in the real world. It's full of combinations of slow motion and sped up action, and is a perfect example of what can be done by visual technicians after the general crew have done their thing. One early fight scene between Anton and the pair of vampires must have looked like precisely nothing while it was shot, but after post production is stylish and bloody and highly memorable.

Beyond a clever story that transcends so much of what passes for modern horror without even trying, there's a lot to watch here that other films could learn lessons from. Unlike films like Underworld, Van Helsing or even The Matrix, there's no chic leather fetish gear here to turn the main players in this immortal battle into fashion divas. These folks wear tracksuits or shabby clothes or whatever seems to be close at hand. The costume department could have been supplied from charity. Nobody watching is going to try to copy their look, unless they're focusing on the Day Watch agent whose day job is a pop diva.

Our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, doesn't look much like a hero either. As played by Konstantin Khabenskiy, he looks different from scene to scene, depending on his condition at the time, and his condition changes frequently. It's a great performance because such variability remains utterly consistent to his flawed character. Unlike most heroes who have to look their best even when having the crap beaten out of them, Anton has an uphill struggle even finding his best, let alone staying there.

While he gets control over himself at times, he's more usually a complete mess, flickering in and out of the past, present and future trying to find a hold. He drinks blood to be able to hear the call being sent out by vampires to their victims, but this just makes him seem drunk and incapable. In this state, he shambles around, apparently unable to take care of his own physical wellbeing, seemingly unable to concentrate on basics like putting one foot in front of the other. He's more than a refreshing change.

His fellow cast members are refreshing too because none of them follow the standard look. I've never seen a set of supernatural beings who look so utterly normal. They could be the guys living next to you in apartment complexes and rundown tower blocks. They don't look remotely special. Only Zavulon tries a little style, as perhaps befits the leader of the Day Watch, but he doesn't overdo it either, merely ending up something like a Russian Rutger Hauer. All the cast members return for the sequel, suggesting that this whole film may really be an introduction to the characters, like say the first X-Men movie, but with an actual plot behind it to make it worthwhile.

There's also a highly innovative use of subtitles which exploits them as if they were an artform all their own. They're obviously designed into the film, which except for the introduction is entirely in Russian, rather than just being added in later for foreign audiences. They disappear and reappear behind things that we pan across. They appear in places on the screen we don't expect. They even dissipate away into blood, flicker and die or bounce out at us for emphasis. They're joyous to watch on their own.

The only problem with the film that I found was that it's such a blitzkrieg of imagery and mythological concepts that it's hard to settle back and concentrate on understanding what's really going on. Perhaps the ending, which is utterly appropriate, would have been transparent had we not been distracted by so much visual noise. And that's no complaint, just a comment that a second or third viewing is likely to settle it all down into something a little more coherent, though maybe it would just expose plot holes. Reading the source novels by Sergei Lukyanenko would probably help too. I wonder if they're available in translation.

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