The Stoker (Kochegar)
A strange, dark and clever Russian black comedy with an unexpectedly forceful moral message
Edinburgh’s beloved Filmhouse cinema has chosen an unusual and intriguing curio for its first release as a distributor. Directed by the prolific Alexey Balabanov - known for his unflinching but darkly comic fables of the Russian criminal underworld - this layered gangster drama is exactly the kind of quality foreign title that tends to slip through the net now that the mass of UK distributors run scared from nasty uncommercial elements like subtitles, edgy content and the requirement to think. If you want Filmhouse to bring us more of this type of content, currently mostly restricted to the festival circuit, vote with your feet and support this release!
But first things first. It’s the 1990s in Russia, and transformation is in the air, with mafiosos and other money-minded entrepreneurs blazing in where only the State used to tread. Also blazing is the oven tended by the titular stoker, Skryabin - an Afghan war hero and ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’ (interesting that this film’s release closely coincides with Vladimir Putin’s reintroduction of that Soviet-era title), who asks conveniently few questions about just what people want to shove into his flames.
Stange, dark and clever, with a sense of Rabelaisian excess and moral murkiness that’s tempered by an ambiguous but unexpectedly forceful moral message, the film address personal responsibility, cruelty and creativity in shady times, via characters who are colourful but never caricatured. Fires crackle ominously throughout, and they aren’t the only constant: the madly perky soundtrack rarely lets up either, whatever’s going on onscreen. A habit of Balabanov’s, this musical restlessness might strike some as a point too forcefully made; but certainly it reflects his themes of lives continually interrupted, peace of mind disrupted, and the inescapable trivia that serves to distract us all from life’s more solemn and testing questions.