Tartan Video // 2007 // 141 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Marco Duran (Retired) // February 4th, 2010
A beautifully shot film that takes its time going nowhere at all.
A film high on existentialism and low on entertainment; its basic message is "No matter where you are or what you do, life is going to kick you down." Always something I like to be reminded of.
Olga (Ekateryna Rak) is a nurse in the Ukraine who needs to moonlight as a web-cam stripper in order to make ends-meet for her and her little baby. Invited to go West, get a better job, and make more money, Olga jumps at the opportunity, leaving her baby with her mother. Setting off to be a cleaning lady, she soon discovers all that she was promised doesn't amount to a hill of beans. Pauli (Paul Hofmann) is a security guard fired from his job. Owing lots of people money, he takes a job in the Ukraine with his stepfather. There he discovers you can't run away from your problems and that life is pretty sucky all around.
Import/Export has no music score. None at all. That can be used to great effect, as the Coen Brothers did in No Country for Old Men, or it could be disastrous. The choice to not have music in a film is usually made for one of three reasons: 1) To be artistic, 2) To show life unaltered, or 3) They ran out of money. If the decision was one of art, this film falls on the fringes of the type of art I like to call, "What do you think?" This happens when the artist's vision is so obscured that everyone can interpret it anyway they want. It's like seeing shapes in clouds. Someone sees a puppy, someone sees a dragon, and everyone's looking at the same cloud. If the decision was to show life unaltered, this film falls more in line with The Bicycle Thief and anything made under the Dogme 95 movement. Then again, it could be a bit of both -- a glimpse at reality that does not impose its morality, but rather lets you decide what is right or wrong.
I enjoy none of these options.
There are long stretches where no one talks and relatively little happens. If you were to add up all the dialogue spoken in the film, you would probably get around 1000 to 2000 words. By comparison, the average movie has 15,000 words. This should give you an idea of how much dead air -- without music -- there is in this film. Scenes that should have taken 20 seconds are given five minutes of tedium. By the end, I was screaming at the screen, "I get it! Move on!" It could have easily been trimmed a good 45 minutes, but the grueling pace is part of director Ulrich Seidl's point and how he wants to make us feel watching his art.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman frames shots excellently. Some of his set ups remind me of Wes Anderson -- people placed smack in the middle of the frame, looking into the camera. He captures some beautiful images and cityscapes that might have been better served in a music video where they could have accompanied something compelling. That said, Lachman's camera must have been very heavy because it is rarely moved. It's like a surveillance camera -- set in one place where characters happen to walk in front of it -- and the audience becomes detached observers in this world. The camera never gets closer to the characters then a medium shot (mid-torso and head) and, as a result, we never get physically or emotionally close to them.
Import/Export may be a good sedative, but you will wake up feeling very depressed. There isn't a single character who catches a break. We see terrible and cruel things happening to our main protagonists and to everyone around them. Olga ends up working in a convalescent hospital -- a cheery place if there ever was one -- where elderly residents are not actors, making their decrepit states all the more miserable to watch. Pauli's stepfather is a letch and, in a very extended scene, the stepfather invites a girl (who does not speak the same language) back to his hotel room for a three-way with his stepson. Pauli isn't too hip to the idea and he and his stepfather argue about it, while the young, naïve, and scared girl sits naked on the bed naked giving the stepfather a half-hearted blowjob. No one is a winner in this situation.
This film is not rated, and for good reason. There is full frontal nudity (both male and female), women are shown pleasuring themselves, many bottomless women stick their naked behinds in the air for long periods of time (often with a finger inserted), and an old man's diaper is changed so we get to see the ravages of time. It's like a demoralizing bit of porn, and you'll probably want to fast-forward through most of it.
The 1.78 anamorphic transfer is grainy and looks like an old distressed film. It was probably shot on the cheap and it shows. The audio offers a couple of different options: standard 2.0 stereo and 5.1 surround, for those who want to be fully engulfed in the sounds of sadness. Both are spoken with a mix of German and Russian, with English subtitles. The bonus features are limited to interviews, one with director Ulrich Seidl and the other with cinematographer Edward Lachman. Both shed some light on what they were trying to accomplish. Seidl, surprise surprise, has a rather pessimistic outlook on life, and feels we should be subjected to the horrors of real life through film. He also informs us there was no written dialogue, all the scenes were improvised. Tartan Palisades also throws in a mart and cleverly edited trailer, raising my expectations to a place the movie could not reach. There are also quite a few trailers for other Tartan releases, all made with great vision and style. They make me want to see these films, but now I will proceed with much more caution.
If you are a fan of film that shows reality in all it's grittiness, if you can't get to sleep, or if you are far too happy for your own good and need to be taken down a couple of pegs, Import/Export is for you. Otherwise, avoid it at all costs.
Guilty! Guilty! A thousand times, Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Tartan Video
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German, Russian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German, Russian)
Running Time: 141 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated