Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 8:38 pm 
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Dark victory

Kontroll is a busy deadbeat romantic thriller about subway conductors. That's all that "kontroll" really means: just surprise-checking passengers to see if they've got a ticket or a valid pass. At first the action seems a bit slow -- unless you regard dropping your face into your ketchup, having a nosebleed, or puking as exciting events. And when the checking starts, the motley, comical passengers -- flirty gay men, abusive Japanese tourists, drunken whores and snotty pimps, a sweet girl in a bear costume (Szofi, Eszter Balla), men who stammer and men who shoot foam -- are all incredibly uncooperative. But the movie finds a compelling rhythm and a dark music (the music is great throughout) that draw you in and hold you till the end. The flow is so continual and the reliance on long tracking shots so frequent I was reminded of Sokorov's dreamlike Russian Ark.

Kontroll has come in for some incredible abuse for its "callous violence" and "smart-ass humor;" it's even been accused of heralding (with Oldboy) a yet further decline into nihilistic, anti-human techno-hipness. And maybe that's true. But how come the plot feels so sweet and positive? There must be some uniquely Hungarian schizophrenia at play here. Beyond the constant but largely ineffectual action is a dark comedy and a boychick-meets-girlchick story with some horror and a symbolic war of good and evil going on, in which the good wins and the languishing hero, a kind of sallow prince charming, finds his damsel and turns away from darkness toward the light. It's like some dark gooey pastry with a delicate dab of sweet custard at the core.

Anyway they're in teams, these checkers. The movie never leaves their subterranean worksite; and because the main character, Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) never leaves it either, we get the feeling this is a wholly subterranean society. But that's not quite true. The others go up into the light sometimes, and even Bulcsú seems about to do so at the end when he gets his girl and defeats the bad guy. She leads him to the big escalator, which beckons like a stairway to heaven.

Bulcsú heads the most ragtag of the teams. All of them roam the system and compete with each other both formally and in wild unsupervised games like "railing" -- a death-defying footrace along the tracks in the wee hours after all but one train has stopped running.

There's a tall, lusty-voiced young narcolept, Muci (Csaba Pindroch), a young footballer type (Tibor AKA Tibi, Zsolt Nagy), an older man who's had an operation (The Professor, Zoltán Mucsi), a little wily gypsy type (Lecsó, Sándor Badár), and others I can't identify -- I'm just not good at Hungarian names. The hero, Bulcsú, once seems to have been an architect; he practiced some profession, anyway, and when he meets a former colleague it comes out that he once was someone of enormous promise and skill. He seems to have gone under, literally and figuratively. Now he sleeps on the subway platforms in his clothes like a homeless person. He has red blotches on his face that look like nasty bruises or herpes. As time goes on some of his teammates get them too.

Occasionally Antal's camera takes a minute to show some architectural wonder of the system: surprisingly white and graceful arches sweeping away from a line of tracks; huge central vents like eyes; banks of glitteringly lit escalators -- and these pauses are moments of serene beauty. Mostly though the camera likes to shift, a bit too randomly sometimes, between the motley crew and ludicrous passengers, when Bulcsú's team is struggling to do their unwelcome checking. Is there a late-blooming critique of communist bureaucracy here? These subway workers are outcasts, the underclass of the underworld, so their attempt to enforce regulations is ridiculous.

Béla (Lajos Kovács), a bearded stocky fellow, is the only driver of a train in the cast. He makes some grievous errors, but with his cozy little meals by candlelight, his sips and smokes and infectious calm, he's a very winning picture of Eastern European gemülichkeit. Opposed to him are the bureacrats of the subway system, the "suits," their leader with a big dark red birthmark, who spy on the kontroll group and mean trouble.

Worse evil is present in the form of a hooded figure in black, whose face we never see, who's pushing people randomly in front of trains. The final "railing" episode is a contest between this bad guy and Bulcsú that Bulcsú just barely seems to win. Eventually the hooded devil falls prey to his own tricks. He also has an innocent counterpart, a young, athletic man, a sort of Ariel to his Caliban, who teases Tibi and gets pursued in a mad dash along the platforms by Bulcsú's team. There are quite a few physical stunts in Kontroll but no tricky special effects.

Eventually Bulcsú finds out the sweet Szofi in her teddy bear outfit is down there so much because she's Béla's daughter. He also learns she likes him. He loves Béla, so that's perfect. The movie's a grab bag: at one point the director squeezes a series of lightning comical psychiatric interviews for the conductors and a lot of the passengers. Kontroll's universality is so lighthearted it reads as a running joke.

A big dance takes place late one night at the end, a sort of underground rave with Venetian style carnival masks and happy, frenetic partners. As planned, our hero meets Szofi there and the sweet finale falls into place. Kontroll is an appealing and stylistically unified blend of darkness and light. It's hard to see what all the snideness and fuss was about, but less difficult to see how this inventive and original movie got Hungary back into Cannes for the first time in two decades. 8/10

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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