The box cover says it like this: "A father sets off from Moscow with his 11 year old son for his sister's house in Koktebel by the Black Sea. With no money nor means of transport, they drift through the expansive and mesmeric landscapes at the mercy of chance. The father is content to drag his feet, stopping occasionally for the odd job to raise money while the son impatiently dreams of reaching the coast. For the father, the journey is an attempt to restore self-respect, to piece together his broken life and win back the trust of his son. For the boy, the mythic costal town holds the key to a new life and emancipation." For the most part, the description is accurate but misses the many nuances that made the movie so interesting to me, making time fly by very quickly.
The movie is one of those that leave a lot to the viewer to fill in on his own. Granted, my knowledge of the Ukraine is fairly limited to movies I've watched (including documentaries) and all that mail order bride spam I get on a daily basis but I have enough to set the basic stage for you here. The movie is set in a fairly contemporary time in the Western part of the USSR. An educated father (we find out later) with a background in engineering (i.e.: a good life by most standards) is shown walking along a deserted grassy plain with a small boy, his son in this case. The boy is at the age when he's still questioning everything that comes to his mind, bothering his father with lots of the usual questions about how far it is to their intended destination, can they travel by faster means, and the like. They are making their way to his sister's place several hundred miles away. While that may be a day trip by our standards, when on foot it takes a long time.
The duo make several stops along the way and meet a variety of interesting characters. It becomes apparent, though never directly stated, that the father lost his wife to some unknown calamity and crawled in a bottle as a result. Whether that was enough to lose his job in a place like Russia is beside the question since he's now on the road and in definitely harder times. We learn this downfall came over an extended period of time and his only resort was to leave Moscow for the slower life of Koktebel where he presumes family will take the two in. The two stop off in one town when they are caught railcar jumping, another to make some spare cash to continue to advance, and yet another when medical circumstances force them to have an extended layover. I'm not going to spoil it for you but each event speaks volumes about the questions I asked above, in mostly subtle ways that seem to have been lost in most domestically produced films (outside the independent releases by small companies).
The gritty detail directors Boris Khlebnikov and Alexei Popogrebsky uses to explore the circumstances of the father, and the son, makes the story work far better than most similar stories done to date by virtue of the realness factor. From the barren plains they travel across to the complex characters that would divert them from their quest, the couple are routinely faced with choices about their circumstance that Boris/Alexie weaves into a tapestry of interrelationships with the people and the land appearing as a seamless whole. I liked the movie on several levels although I wish it did a better job spelling out the ending and cut back on some of the metaphors employed. For example, the driving theme of flight (butterflies, gliders, and the father's employment as an engineer building aircraft to name a few) was so prevalent that it beat me over the head. Most of the conclusions based on that plot device would've been great to also leave open ended or more understated but Boris and Alexie are new directors and probably wanted to make sure the audience "got it". Otherwise, the movie was well worth a rating of Recommended with fans of foreign films probably thinking even more of it (especially given how many film festival awards and nominations it reaped in over the last couple of years).
Picture: Roads to Koktebel was presented in anamorphic widescreen color with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The cinematography was interesting in all cases, with a definite leaning towards a grayer scale than almost any release I've watched in a long time. There's nothing to be cheerful about so a bright color palate would be out of place here (unlike a comedy for example) and it helped set the stage as perfectly as any other aspect of the movie. There were a few times when some grain entered the picture but I'm positive that was done intentionally given the manner in which some of the more difficult shots were handled so well. Another interesting aspect of the visuals was how so much of the movie was handled like a gonzo production where the camera moved in very closely (possibly too closely) and kept moving around as though to search out the best spot for a scene. This wasn't done all the time but it was frequent enough to keep it in the back of my head, making me believe it was a device to promote an intimacy that longer, more static shots would not have handled as well. The DVD mastering itself was handled well too with no compression artifacts or video noise.
Sound: The audio was presented with a choice of either the original 2.0 stereo Russian track or an enhanced 5.1 Dolby Digital track in Russian, both with optional English subtitles. To be frank about it, I didn't notice a lot of difference between the two tracks except on some of the remote, barely noticeable background noises (the train in one instance and some birds chirping in another) but the sheer sparseness of this aspect of the movie was fitting given the visuals. The subtitles were easy to read and didn't seem to offer any hugely weird translations as some foreign films of late have done. There was some decent separation between the channels but the limited dynamic range was befitting such a film in most cases.
Extras: This region one release had very little to offer in the extras section. There were a couple of biographies, a list of recent releases from Film Movement (without trailers mind you), and the usual short story. This time, the short story was The Box Man, an animated short from the USA by director Nirvan Mullick, done in what reminded me of the Claymation of days gone by. The subject matter of a paranoid man worried about a hidden man in a box were fitting in these days of urban terror (not to mention the fallout from Hurricane Katrina) and I wholeheartedly recommend you spend the five minutes needed to check it out. A friend in another part of the world told me that the region two version of the main feature has better extras, including a lengthy director's interview, but it was not included here. Still, as much as I appreciate extras, I prefer the picture quality of movies placed on a single layer disc.
Final Thoughts: Roads to Koktebel was a richly textured movie with a driving theme of a boy and his dad trying to survive with the help of those they met. It was open ended enough to allow you to interpret it as you see fit but had some real teeth in terms of the characters and how they played off one another. Much like another recent release from Film Movement, Le Grand Voyage, there were some cultural chasms to cross in terms of the situation but the appeal it had on several levels transcended those differences. It wasn't a perfect film but the combination of technical matters, acting by the leads (and secondary performers), and the story itself made it well worth checking out with plenty of replay value for those searching for the deeper meanings of what took place.