Friday, September 28, 2007

Film Review: Day Watch (Dnevnoy Dozor)

Russian Vampires!

What, you want more than that? Fine. For centuries there has been a truce between the forces of Light and Dark; each would police the other, and neither would go to war. However, Yegor (Dima Martynov), a powerful young 'Other', has joined the forces of darkness, whilst Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), an equally powerful Other, has joined the forces of light, and if their paths should cross, it would end the Truce and bring about the Apocalypse. Stuck in the middle is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), Yegor's father, whose attempts to use magic to abort Yegor before he was born drove him to the darkness.

Does any of that make sense? No? Good. Let's move on.

Night Watch, the film to which this is a sequel, was released in 2004 to a not insignificant amount of acclaim. The visual style of the film, mixing the dark aesthetics of film noir with hyperkinetic editing, fairly impressive special effects and inventive use of subtitles, as well it’s unusual, complex mythology propelled it from being a niche hit into a worldwide success. Just like any good sequel, Day Watch retains these basic qualities but goes far beyond the confines of its predecessor, and gives us a film which is epic, deep and completely batshit crazy.

Day Watch isn't just a film, it's about twelve films, all of which are fighting desperately to get out. On the face of it, it's an epic fantasy film with vampires fighting each other, but it's also a murder mystery, a melodrama (in the best possible sense) about fathers and sons. At the same time all of this is going on, it's also something of a rom-com, an action movie, a Billy Wilder-esque farce, a meditation on the ramifications of errors in judgment, an Indiana Jones film in which characters are all trying to get hold of an ancient and powerful artifact (in this case the 'Chalk of Fate', with which people can re-write their destinies) and a representation of the simple human desire to fix what can not be undone. In short, Day Watch is a free-for-all of a film in which it is constantly battling with itself to decide what the hell it actually is.

This is the primary weakness of the film but it is also its greatest strength. Throughout the film, the different strands keep pushing each other aside to move to the fore, so for much of the film the whole ''War is coming, we must prevent the apocalypse'' aspect of the film is actually kept in the background, and only really asserts itself in the final third. This constant shifting is quite disorientating but it also prevents the film from being even remotely boring and it remains, from beginning to end, completely unpredictable. This is partly because the film is an amalgamation of a couple of stories in the book 'Night Watch' by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, so there's a lot of plot to get through and much of it is condensed to fit the film's fairly brisk running time. As such, it makes very little sense most of the time, yet it's the freewheeling madness of the film that makes it so great.

Day Watch is a unique film, the only film in recent years that even approaches it in terms of frenetic, fun, joyously insane energy is the South Korean film The Host, which similarly didn't know what it actually was and made that into a huge benefit rather than a problem. Much like its predecessor, Day Watch leaps straight into things and doesn't really pander to the audience; apart from a brief introductory sequence in which the plot of the first film is summarised. Day Watch forces you to accept it on its own terms; it's a film that has its own individual world with its own rules, rules which are not for one second explained to the audience. The powers of the various characters are never fully detailed, so every time a fight starts or a character is trying to escape from enemies, you really don't know how they'll get out of it, and when they do you won't really understand how or why they did it. And you know what? None of that matters for a single second. It's a full-on mindfuck of a film that throws a million ideas around and expects the audience to catch them and it is this adventurous nature that makes the film so much fun. The fact that it's also visually very impressive and inventive, a sequence towards the end in which the entirety of Moscow is leveled is a work of pure genius, as well as being very well acted is just icing on a manic cake.

Probably what's most bizarre about the film is that it is genuinely touching. All the characters in it, dark or light, are incredibly likeable and you do find yourself caring for each of them. Even amongst everything else that happens, you do care about whether or not Yegor and Anton will ever be reconciled, if Anton will ever get together with Svetlana, and what will happen to all the minor characters if and when the war starts. It's just one more aspect of the idiosyncratic charm of the film that it can elicit genuine emotional responses in the midst of the rest of the crazy crap that's going on.

Day Watch is, without a doubt, one of the most singularly enjoyable films released this year. It's thrilling, funny, surprisingly moving, and it's unlike anything else out at the moment. Give yourself over to its logic, sit back, and watch the sparks fly. You'll have a blast.