Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Czech Republic, February 2014.
I don’t quite understand how it happened, but I appear to have become Mostly Film’s resident expert in Czech cinema. Have a look at the stats if you don’t believe me. Over the last three years, I’ve contributed a career retrospective of animator Jan Švankmajer, plus not one but two capsule reviews of Jindřich Polák science fiction movies. Mostly Film’s printing staff always breathe a deep sigh of frustration whenever I walk into the office, as they drag out their rarely-used tin box of accents and circumflexes in preparation for my next piece.
For all my apparent Czech cinephilia, I’ve barely spent any time in the country at all. Up until recently, all I could claim was a single trip to Prague for Christmas 2008, during which time I caught Kozí příběh – Pověsti staré Prahy, the Republic’s first CGI animated feature. (Quite a good choice for a first-time visitor to the city, as it happens: it’s an embellished version of the legends surrounding the construction of some of Prague’s most famous attractions, told from the point of view of a Rhys Ifans lookalike and his alcoholic goat.) Five and a bit years later, I finally got to travel there for work, this time to Ostrava – a city whose civic pride is so great, their official logo is just their name followed by three exclamation marks.
With the invaluable aid of the CineStar Ostrava, I was able to catch a couple of movies in an attempt to deduce the current trends in Czech cinema. The first one was Krásno, which I believe is named after the small town where it’s set. It opens with an idyllic sepia-toned sequence of three kids mucking around in a lake, suddenly upended when one of them is struck by lightning. Some time later, two grown men – Michal (co-writer Martin Finger) and Adam (director and co-writer Ondřej Sokol), presumably the ones who weren’t struck by lightning – return to their childhood town. They check into the hotel – without any intention of paying, judging from the manager’s increasing resentment at their presence – and start re-acquainting themselves with the local women, to varying degrees of failure.
Krásno’s tone is a bugger to get a handle on, especially if you can’t understand what anyone is saying. Visually, it’s an indigestible series of jumpcuts between wide rural vistas and dingy interiors: any attempt at a cinematic look is undercut by fades to black every ten minutes, which is presumably useful for when Czech TV want to show it with ad breaks. Plotwise, it’s an equally confused mashup of high drama and low comedy, most of the latter coming from slapstick interludes involving Michal and Adam’s car and its unerring ability to crash into people and buildings. After the film has see-sawed between these extremes for most of its running time, there’s a relatively small act of accidental violence, and suddenly everyone’s running off to a predetermined place carrying guns. By the final scene, in which a large proportion of the headline cast is killed off in the space of 90 seconds, I had no idea what this film was any more.
Thankfully, my temporary work colleagues for the week were able to help at this point, directing me towards CSFD, the Česko-Slovenská Filmová Database. Every Czech film you can think of has an entry in there, including a detailed plot synopsis. Feeding that synopsis through Microsoft Translator is far from a perfect solution, but it reveals a whole layer of plot that simply wasn’t visible on screen. Michal, it turns out, is carrying a ton of angst regarding his mother, whom everyone suspects was drowned in the lake by his father. This came as such a surprise to me that I can only assume the phrase ‘show don’t tell’ never appears in Czech screenwriting manuals. The pair actually visit Michal’s dad early on in the film, by which point he’s a bed-ridden vegetable: I’d assumed this was the kid who was struck by lightning, but it looks like that opening has no connection to the rest of the film at all. Digging through reviews, it looks like the film is aiming for the black comic tone of an In Bruges or something along those lines, but visually it’s far too deadpan to achieve that.
By comparison, Vejška is a lot more fun, though still somewhat flawed. Written and directed by Tomáš Vorel Sr., and starring Tomáš Vorel Jr. (uh-oh), it’s the story of two young graffiti artists, initially seen in a smartly choreographed street chase after nearly being caught by the cops. The title translates as Uni, and the film follows their attempts to study in between street art escapades. Michal (Jirí Mádl) is womanising his way through an economics course, with the help of his rich dad. Meanwhile, Petr (Vorel Jr.) is struggling in art school, trying to apply his graffiti techniques to more traditional forms. The results are poor, made even worse by his girlfriend Julia (Eva Josefíková) being a much better artist than he is. As if that wasn’t enough, he has to live with his mum, who’s a drunk and looks like Terry Gilliam.
Vejška has pretty much everything you’d expect from a college movie: the casual attitude to sexual matters, the sense that grown-ups just don’t understand your pain, the inevitable appearance of Scruffy Friend With Beard Who Can Get Drugs For You. (Kids, I’m an old man, help me out here: is doing coke off the screen of an iPhone really a thing now? No wonder you keep breaking them.) That’s not to mention the inevitable anti-authority angle that comes from having street artists as your protagonists. The BBFC would have a shitfit when it comes to what they call imitable behaviour, especially when the film shows the equipment and techniques used to tag on an industrial scale.
There are some problems here, partly mine and partly the film’s. There’s a little too much fetishisation of Julia’s character – frequently, her dialogue scenes are shot with her looking directly down the camera – so when someone else in the film starts fetishising her later on, it gets a bit weird. As with Krásno, there are lots of fades to black, but here it seems to be a stylistic quirk of current Czech cinema rather than a blatant cue for commercials. As a device for forcing the viewer to consider the scene they’ve just watched, it loses its power when you have one literally every couple of minutes. But the oddest bit of Vejška is the ending – spoiler alert! As Petr hits the lowest ebb of his life, he suddenly gets a letter from a (non-fictional) company whose building he’d earlier tagged with a giant version of their logo, in a shameless bit of product placement. They offer Petr a job in America, and he takes it. The end. It’s a plot development that appears to come completely out of nowhere, and it seems too ridiculously pat for a film that’s operated in a generally realistic register up until that point.
But as ever in Monoglot Movie Club, films that more or less stay inside their genre work better than ones that try to muck about with the rules. Krásno may be more ambitious in what it’s trying to achieve, but Vejška is much higher on entertainment value. Particularly when you feed its CSFD synopsis through Microsoft Translator, and discover that the cool-sounding music supervisor DJ Mika Trafika ends up getting mangled into Mike Tobacconist.