Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger used to have an angel on his right shoulder, too—but it fled when the miniature Coors Light girls and Motley Crüe showed up with the keg.
We, the people of Tajikistan,
It is difficult not to apply a double standard when a unique cinematic experience comes along. For example, until Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) landed on my docket a couple of years ago, I never thought I'd type the words "Inuktitut 5.1." Although that film has glaring flaws, it is difficult to condemn a film made in the harsh conditions of the Arctic circle by a member of a reticent culture thousands of years old. It showed me a way of life I'd otherwise never see, and if it was slow in parts it was worth it for the cultural enlightenment alone.
Likewise, I never thought I'd type the words "Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Tajik)"; in fact, before watching Angel on the Right I didn't even know what "Tajik" was. Tajik is the language spoken in Tajikistan, an economically depressed, war-torn country just west of China. Let's just say that it isn't known for its booming film industry. Tajikistan's intersection of Muslim fundamentalism, Oriental philosophy, Russian political influence, and propensity for civil war mean that its cultural interest is rivaled only by its barriers to cogent self-expression on the global stage. Based on country of origin alone, Angel on the Right should interest fans of world cinema.
With that positive bias firmly in mind, I feel comfortable reporting two observations. One: Angel on the Right doesn't need sympathy; its cinematic merit stands on its own. Two: It is an understated, and therefore rather slow, film independent of its cultural relevance.
With a cast formed exclusively of unknowns from director Jamshed Usmonov's hometown, Angel on the Right depicts a plot by a tiny Tajikistani town to lure one of its wayward sons back home. Hamro left behind debts, responsibilities, and an illegitimate child to join the Russian mob; the town that spawned him wants a piece of the action. Hamro's mother, Halima, plays sick at the behest of the mayor. We slowly learn of the plot along with Hamro, watch his dawning comprehension, and figure out how he'll emerge from the mess he made.
Angel on the Right is slow at the beginning. While we wait for a plot to present itself, we make do with long peeks into daily life in Tajikistan. The middle act is comparatively busy, while the end is frayed, almost random. The movie could have ended any one of a dozen ways, and it wouldn't have substantially altered the overall experience. A clumsy introduction of mythology at the last minute recasts Angel on the Right as a fantastic fable, which I'm not sure was the right way to go in a heretofore realistic tale.
Even with this inconsistency, the plot and characterizations manage to form a darkly comic tale of slow-simmering revenge on a man who never quite grasps the nuances of the net he's trapped within. Hamro is kept busy with the project of restoring his mother's house, looking for work, avoiding creditors, and struggling in vain to resist the worldly pleasures denied him in prison—all while saddled with a ten-year-old son he wasn't aware existed. The reviews I've read indicate that this relationship strikes people as the most compelling, but I never saw the charm in it. Hamro is harsh toward his new charge, and though the two achieve moments of humor and connection, the overall relationship seemed stunted. Perhaps that is the whole point; I'm willing to admit that nuances escaped me.
On the other hand, the cinematography in Angel on the Right holds its own against every other independent film I've seen in the last ten years, including those out of Los Angeles and New York. Usmonov combines a National Geographic sensibility with impressive composition, deep focus, and clever editing. Almost every scene benefited from creative cinematography. Likewise, the acting is of high caliber considering the untutored cast. We get the sense that Usmonov recast his family and friends into a fictional tale, but asked them to be themselves in all other respects. The performances are understated, but absolutely convincing. Taken together, the cinematography, editing, and acting establish a legitimate film that just happens to be set in an underrepresented country.
Angel on the Right never fully escapes the shadow of its cultural curiosity factor. Tajikistanis conduct negotiations through an unpleasant ritual of haggling and painful arm-shaking. Usmonov is undoubtedly aware of this novelty, because he shows it several times, but it never grows tiresome. The townspeople's actions indicate a symbiotic unity, as though they are one being seeking to drain an enemy. I found that the cultural spin became forced when (spoilers ahead!) the healthy Halima barters with the mayor for an imminent date of death. This superstitious act would have been fine if it were somehow used to manipulate Halima. But when she actually dies on the stated day, Angel on the Right took an unexpected and unnecessary left turn into the weird.
If you're looking for audiovisual quality, look elsewhere. When I watched Angel on the Right, I wasn't aware that it was distributed by First Run Features. Learning that helped explain the pan-and-scan chop job of a widescreen print, the torrent of print damage, the unbelievably soft and blurry transfer, the burned-in subtitles, and the overall instability of the frame. Given the wretched state of the video, the soundtrack's extensive dropouts, background hiss, pops, clicks, and tinny tenor came as no surprise. I'd love to someday see and hear Angel on the Right as it was intended to be seen and heard. There are some brief notes about Jamshed Usmonov and demographic statistics about Tajikistan to supplement a slew of promotional material, but in general the DVD presentation leaves much to be desired.
Angel on the Right is an unsympathetic but comic tale that touches on powerful human themes. It is uneven in tone and lacks a clear narrative thrust, but compensates with great cinematography, good acting, and cultural interest. If the transfer had been in widescreen and the soundtrack even moderately cleaned up, I'd be much more willing to recommend this DVD. As it stands, I recommend you seek out Tartan's Region 0 DVD, which has optional subtitles and an anamorphic widescreen print.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Director Biography
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