This year’s Russian Resurrection Film Festival marks its 10th anniversary as the largest festival of Russian Cinema outside of Russia. Showcasing a cross section of Russian culture over a variety of film genres, the program welcomes award winning Director of comedy musical Hipsters Valery Todorovsky.
Set in 1950s Soviet Russia, Hipsters follows the relationship between Mels (Anton Shagin) who is a member of the Komosomol, the youth wing of the Communist party and Polina “Polly” (Oksana Akinshina) who is a ‘Stilyagi’ or Hipster. Stilyagi (literal translation “obsessed with fashion”) was a derogatory slur given to those who had a love of American culture, donning the colourful fashion and music of the era. In a socialist regime where embracing foreign capitalist culture was considered distasteful and treacherous, it was dangerous to be so vibrantly self-expressive in public.
Mels encounters Polly during a demonstrative raid on an illegal gathering in Gorky Park, led by Komosomol member Katya (Eugenia Khirivskaya). After being chased by Mels, Polly feigns a broken ankle and escapes, jokingly inviting him to Broadway (a local hipster hangout) where he shows up the next day. After their second meeting, Mels finds himself enchanted by Polly and in a bid to win her over decides to become a Stilyaga. He takes a job unloading freight trains to pay for clothes and enlists the help of hipster Bob (Igor Voynarovskiy) to teach him how to dance. He persuades the pack’s charismatic leader Fred (Maksim Matveyev) and the group to accept him and is sucked into their glamorously liberating world.
After acquiring a saxophone and teaching himself to play, Mels serenades Polly onstage, winning her heart. He joins the local band and gains popularity playing underground clubs. All is well, until Polly confesses one night that she is pregnant with another man’s child and has been thrown out of home. She is taken in by Mel’s family who accept the child nonetheless. Meanwhile, Fred is given the opportunity to study abroad by his wealthy diplomat father, on the proviso that he give up his current lifestyle and marry a well-connected American woman. He accepts and hands pack leadership to Mels. This is the catalyst for the group to split, as they begin to realise their lifestyle is heading nowhere. Months later, Fred returns to visit and shatters Mels illusions with a revelation that the Stilyagi no longer exist in the U.S and the world has moved on.
This film depicts a time where dressing differently and buying bootlegged foreign music or instruments could have you arrested and jailed. It was a brave act to defy the social norm and Stilyagi who did go out in public were often verbally and physically abused. In this instance Mels is ostracised by the Komosomol and forced to turn in his badge. The impact of this lifestyle choice also flowed onto families; Mel’s brother is beaten for being related to a Stilyaga and Polly’s mother fears of losing her job, which leads her to beating her own child and threatening to burn her clothes.
It’s not all doom and gloom however. Todorovsky captures the colourful, flashy and extravagant decadence of the 1950s in a way that’s completely visually stunning. From the costuming to the lighting to the joyful exuberance of the characters themselves, even the dreariest of moments are lightened. Those who may balk at the thought of another cheesy musical need not worry, the musical numbers fit seamlessly into the storyline, making the film not feel over the top. Although the musical is sung and spoken in Russian, the lyrics and music are fantastically well written and still translate the feel and emotion of the scene across succinctly.
The characters themselves are well cast and pull the comedic moments off with ease. Anton Shagin is entrancing as the sweet, naïve and idealistic Mels, as is Oksana Akinshina as the flighty and headstrong Polly. There are some really cool and very funny moments throughout this film and Todorovsky has done a great job of sending a universal message about love and freedom, whilst celebrating everything that made the 1950s great.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Russian Resurrection Film Festival will be touring nationally between 3rd July and 11th August. For Programme and Session details please visit http://www.russianresurrection.com/