I have some rather mixed feelings regarding the independence which the little satellite republics from the former Soviet Union gained after the collapse of the Evil Empire. After an unbridled patriotic jubilation what followed up was a harsh economic reality where there were no jobs, there were hardly any businesses to fuel the economy, and the organized mafia literally became part of these newly emerged independent states. The dreams of those hoping that the departure of the Russians will finally result in political pluralism and economic prosperity were quickly crushed.
Set in the former Soviet republic of Armenia Hiner Saleem's Vodka Lemon touches upon all of the above following the story of Hamo (Romen Avinian) an old man living on a miserable state pension, his three sons, and the lonely widow Nina (Lala Sarkissian). In the small village where both Hamo and Nina reside there is hardly anything to do but visit the nearby cemetery and "talk" with the loved ones fate has taken away. There, amongst those resting in the frozen Armenian land, Hamo and Nina will grow a special affection for each other beating the odds of a cold and increasingly unfriendly world.
Structured as part-comedy /part-drama Vodka Lemon offers an unusually gritty look at a country where hope for a better life is virtually non-existent. In the small village where the story of the film takes place there are hardly any younger people left- those who had savings or anything valuable to sell have long ago immigrated to the West leaving behind only the elderly and the poor. As it seems aside from the local market where people are forced to sell whatever they have left to provide for their families life has come to a complete stop.
The story of Vodka Lemon appears somewhat secondary in this intriguing film. Despite of the fact that Hamo's struggle to survive his irresponsible sons and later on control his infatuation with the lonely Nina take a major part of this production I saw Vodka Lemon as an honest look at a country where the meaning of the term hope has lost its meaning. It is hard to imagine that people actually manage to live in these remote areas which only until a few years ago were heavily controlled by the Soviet apparatchiks. The sense of irony which Vodka Lemon evokes with its beautiful yet sad vistas is indeed staggering.
In addition to its morose tone, however, Vodka Lemon also manages to bring a few genuinely impressive laughs inspired by the ridiculous lives which the main protagonists are forced to struggle with on a daily basis. One of the more striking scenes involves an old piano which has to be carried to a nearby bazaar where people sell everything from cars to semi-used Red Army uniforms. Unfortunately there is hardly any transportation available in the region and those in charge with the precious piano are left improvising in a most unusual way. The result as you might guess is jaw-dropping.
In Julie Bertucelli's Since Otar Left (2003) which I saw awhile ago I witnessed the same degree of desperation and lack of hope which Hiner Saleem's Vodka Lemon offers. In Bertucelli's film which was set in Georgia, yet another one of the former Soviet republics which gained its independence during the early 90s, an older woman was trying to cope with the loss of her immigrant-son found dead in Paris. In Vodka Lemon while the main story appears different the message in my opinion is virtually the same- life in the ex-satellite states from the once mighty Soviet Empire has reached a degree of preposterousness almost indescribable with simple worlds.
Vodka Lemon is the winner of the San Marco Award (Best Film) from the Venice Film Festival (Hiner Saleem) (2003), and winner of the Grand Prize at Mons International Festival of Love Films (2004).
How Does the DVD Look?
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.83:1 and enhanced for widescreen TV's the print delivered by New Yorker Video appears almost identical to the one found on the UK DVD produced by Metrodome. While the UK DVD was not anamorphic the R1 DVD does appear to be more suitable for those with 16:9 theater set ups. The main problem with this presentation is that New Yorker appear to have used yet another PAL port for their version of Vodka Lemon. With this said the results are not horrendous- colors while at times a bit washed off are generally stable, contrast is by large acceptable, and detail tolerable. The New Yorker disc also seems to be in better shape when it comes to color bleeding which was a major issue with the UK disc yet here it is held to an acceptable level. In addition New Yorker have provided optional white subtitles as opposed to the imposed yellow subs present on the UK disc.
How Does the DVD Sound?
With a genuinely simple yet deserving 2.0 Armenian/Kurdish (and additional French and Russian) soundtrack the DVD should meet the expectations of those wishing to see this film. Mostly dialog driven and shot with a limited arsenal of supporting music, surround effects, etc. the audio track is perfectly fine.
While the UK disc offers the lengthy French extra "Vodka on Ice: Un making of de Vodka Lemon" the New Yorker disc offers only linear notes with Hiner Saleem and a theatrical trailer.
More than a year ago I fell in love with this film and was utterly impressed by the painful honesty with which life in modern-day Armenia was portrayed. The splendid cinematography and beautiful story are indeed not to be missed. I highly recommend this film to those wishing to explore especially considering the fact that we rarely get to see films made by Armenian directors. I also believe that with all of its flaws and lack of substantial extras the R1 DVD is the one to own as I don't foresee a better English-friendly version of this film emerging any time soon. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.