Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 22nd, 2020
Crystal Swan (Darya Zhuk, 2018) 3 out of 4 stars.
The time is 1996, the location Minsk, capital of the former Soviet Republic of Belarus. Twentysomething Evelina Soroka – Velya for short – feels out of sorts and out of place in this unsettled era of rapid change that has left her country reeling from economic and political collapse. She wants to leave, for America, and for Chicago, specifically, home to the house music she adores and plays at night as a DJ in a club adorned with busts of Lenin and other fallen communist icons. Her mother is not so enamored of Velya’s interests, loudly proclaiming that “loving your motherland is a spiritual practice.” Since she works in a museum that celebrates the nation’s history, this hardly surprises. It doesn’t help Velya, however, whose only comrade in rebellious arms is her friend Alik, but all he wants to do is get high. What’s an ambitious gal with nowhere to go to do?
Such is the setup of director Darya Zhuk’s engaging feature-directorial debut, Crystal Swan (“Хрусталь,” or “Khrustal’,” in the original Russian). We follow Velya, played with a moving combination of confidence and vulnerability by Alina Nasibullina, as she makes a potentially drastic mistake on her United States visa application and is forced to travel to the provincial town of Khrustal’ to fix it. This involves camping out in the apartment of a family of strangers, who just happen to have a phone that answers to the number she wrote on the form. What starts out as a simple enough task turns, slowly, into something resembling a purgatory of stasis, entropy and then sudden violence. What happens there is a perfect metaphor for what was happening in all such places and countries at that time, much of which has led to the world we live in today. Add in a little false hope in the American dream and it comes quite close to a nightmare.
Zhuk, herself originally from Belarus (though educated in America), draws each character in vivid detail, building a world where all could be possible yet nothing really is. Velya, it turns out, has arrived on the eve of a wedding, though you wouldn’t guess it given how taken the would-be bridegroom is with her. As incarnated by Ivan Mulin, Stepan appears helpful, at first, but not far below the surface lurks a man seething with humiliation at his lack of a future. Just back from military service, he also feels emasculated by the hazing he underwent in the army. And here comes Velya, to him sophisticated far beyond the charms of his bride, and with just enough city arrogance to provoke something within. How far will he push his flirtation with her?
As carefully calibrated as much of this is, there are times when Zhuk loses control of tone and story. Alik, for example, is presented as comic relief of a sort, even as he contemplates shooting heroin; Velya’s mother has a dramatic arc that just … stops; and the ending, though fine in many ways, has elements that feel a little too forced. There’s also a stray dog whose presence, though delightful in many ways, seems overly symbolic. Beyond these occasional missteps, Zhuk displays an expert hand with actors and mise-en-scène. Though the swan may never quite soar as she wants, she is definitely a star.
[Starting on May 23, Crystal Swan streams on MUBI USA for 30 days.]