As the Talking Heads successfully argued, life during wartime "ain't no party...disco...or fooling around". Indeed, the toll a sovereignty skirmish takes on a nation cannot be calculated in full. Instead, it is measured in individual facets, a collection of coping mechanisms both stoic and sickening. Russia in the early '80s was gripped by the ongoing occupation of Afghanistan, and in the process, the nation became divided. Some were indifferent, taking up the mantle of the country's cause just as easily as they bought any other snippet of Communist Party misinformation. Others, however, used the chaos as a way of tapping into the ever-present military machine and milking it for all they could. One such situation occurred in the small provincial locale of Leninsk. There, a perverted police officer kidnapped a young girl and kept her for his own disturbing pleasures. It's within this nasty narrative that filmmaker Alexey Balabanov takes us through the USSR of 1984 - and it's not a pleasant place to visit.
Artem teaches scientific atheism at a Russian university. His brother is a ranking official in the military. Each has adolescent problems. Artem's adopted nephew just wants to party and piss off most of the day. His sibling's daughter is a determined young girl, though she hangs out with a suspicious rogue named Valera. He, in turn, takes up with her best friend, Angelika, and they both wind up at the farm of a bootlegger named Aleksey. After a night of heavy drinking, Valera passes out and his date is kidnapped by a local policeman named Zhurov. His plans are horrible - he will take Angelika to his sick mother's home in his hometown of Leninsk, and use her as a surrogate sex slave. In the meantime, Artem's brother is dealing with the daily arrival of Cargo 200 - the corpses of fallen soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. As bureaucrats pass the buck, Zhorov continues his corrupt ways, even framing Aleksey for the murder of his manservant, Sunka.
There are two ways to judge Cargo 200, and only one of them works. The odd element out is as entertainment, thriller, black comedy, horror, or proposed exploitation homage. Certainly, if you are part of the current Russian 'revolution', watching your nation crawl slowly out of Communism like an overweight party animal out of his/her too tight leather pants, you can't help but be a little shocked. This is the Soviet Union circa 1984 as an Eastern Bloc version of Deliverance. What's depicted is so corrupt, so outside the norm of rational human thought, that filmmaking Alexey Balabanov could be accused of being depraved for the sake of little artistic merit. Sure, the movie plays on that time honored hype tool of being "based on actual events", but the notion that corrupt government officials would use bootlegging, white slavery, and other acts of debauchery as a means of making ends meet in the wicked world of a pre-perestroika USSR is really nothing new. Instead, it's the outsider looking in who feels flush at the concept that, within the seeming strict Marxist make-up of the country, such vileness seems like standard operating procedure.
It's not like Balabanov throws such sickness in our faces. Cargo 200 starts out so innocuously that you find yourself returning to the DVD cover art to assure yourself that this will end up being something that will "shock even the most strong-stomached of moviegoers." The entire casualness of the approach definitely sets us up for a more disturbing denouement, but then the director starts giving away his hand. When we meet up with the bootleggers, they are drawn directly out of Central Cliché Casting 101. There's the young drunken hothead, the Asian slave, the desperate woman, and the weird guy hanging around the fringes, looking like a combination serial killer, Satanist, and pedophile. If these people aren't going to pervert something over the course of the film's 89 minute running time, then something is really wrong with our craven cinema radar. Luckily, Balabanov takes his time getting to the grossness. That it sort of underwhelms is, again, part and parcel of the way the Western media sensationalizes said subject matter. Part of Cargo 200's failure lies in how desensitized we are.
Besides, the film really does lack in quality entertainment value. It's grim and rather bleak, and offers little that an American can recognize or react to. The scenes in the disco may play out like any Saturday night in Smalltown, USA, but the overall town of hopelessness and pending horror makes it seem like a John Hughes snuff film. Similarly, the ending comes across as hasty and poorly prepared for. There is a conversation late in the game between the professor and the condemned moonshiner's wife that seems ripped out of a different part of the script, and as we are getting our bearings and making connections, Balabanov simply moves on to some other part of the yarn. Thematically, it's clear that Cargo 200 wants to deal with the blind eye criminality in all of us - from the educator who feeds impressionable minds the Communist Party line to the official who wants his virginal hostage to perform all manner of miscreant deeds. But we also get subtler statements, like the young man who trades grain alcohol for pelts in the North. His system is suspect, but he's not shy about it. We can actually see the future of a "free" Russia in his entrepreneurial con-jobbing. Still, it's not enough to make Cargo 200 anything other than a one-time curiosity.
Offered, oddly enough, by the Disinformation Company (notorious for their off the radar documentary releases) in a decent DVD package, the tech specs here are very good. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is excellent, carrying Balabanov's gritty, grimy cinematography all the way through to the equally downbeat ending. The atmosphere is austere, with almost all the color bleached out. Night scenes are controlled without a lot of inevitable grain and the overall look is polished and very professional.
Clearly not a product of the current Tinsel Town studio system, the audio elements here are a tad sketchy. Some of the dialogue gets lost in the musical cues, and the subtitles (the film is in Russian, with mandatory English translation) seem to miss a few key narrative moments. Still, for what you get, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is just fine.
Sadly, there are no bonus features offered here. The disc only has a "Play/Chapters" menu and that's it. There is also no insert or additional contextual material. And it's a shame, since this is the kind of movie that begs for a little outside-the-situation explanation.
It's hard to dismiss Cargo 200 outright. It's an evocative and eerie bit of motion picture propaganda. No one living in 2009 would argue that Russia in 1984 was anything short of a sty, a living Hell which forced people of normal ethics to move drastically off the heading on their own moral compass. That doesn't make a movie about the situation any more enjoyable, however. Still, when all is said and done, Cargo 200 deserves a look, at least from a novelty/notoriety standpoint. It earns its Recommended rating, but with a couple of clear caveats. First off, don't believe the hype. There are far worse films coming out of these United States than the shock value variables on display here. And secondly, don't be surprised if the movie's morose tone takes its toll on you. There is only so much dark and depressing squalor one can take before turning off the home theater and running for the nearest swatch of sunlight. Cargo 200 would have you believe it is the exploitation equivalent to witnessing a suicide. Instead, it's merely another tale of man's inhumanity to man, filtered through a failed foreign idealism.