Hanaan: Film Review

Downbeat Korean/Uzbek cop-drama treads familiar turf with sure-footed cultural knowledge.

Modern-day crime tale that throws light on Soviet history wherein Koreans were forcibly relocated by Stalin to populate the Asian republics.

LOCARNO — Familiar material receives an exotic, grimy twist in Hanaan, a South Korean/Uzbekistan co-production whose appeal derives from on the complex historical and cultural connections between those two very different Asian nations. One of the better received world premieres at Locarno, where it debuted in the Filmmakers of the Present sidebar, this crime-drama is a promisingly gritty debut from writer/director/co-editor Ruslan Pak. Further festival exposure will follow, and the film's unusual provenance may propel it into limited art-house distribution.

"This feels like a scene from an American movie!" someone remarks quite early in Hanaan, and Pak's debt to and immersion in foreign influences is unmistakfable, both in terms of cinema and television. (Think The Wire, and not just in terms of the jittery, hand-held digital camerawork.) Since he's dealing with characters who are similarly steeped in U.S. culture, that's not in itself a criticism: Pak delves into the lives and psyches of young men — and they are all men — on both sides of the law so their behavior to a significant degree is informed by what they've seen on screen.

Nevertheless, we are a long, long way from the glamour of American crime-epics and much closer to the downbeat, color-leached, hard-scrabble territory explored last year by Corneliu Porumboiu in Romania's Police, Adjective and Levan Koguashvili in the Georgian Street Days. Porumboiu's picture concentrated on law-enforcement personnel; Koguashvili's on small-time hoods and social marginals. Pak shows that the line between the two groups is, in Uzbekistan at least, distinctly hazy.

He does so by charting the career of Stas (taciturn Stanislav Tyan), a cop with a shady background who quits the force when he realizes the extent of the police's venality and corruption. This sparks a spiral of decline that leaves him a near-helpless drug-addict in skuzzy sequences of aggressively unpleasant junkie squalor. It's only by retreating into the mountainous Uzbek countryside that Stas can go (icy) cold turkey, then seek revenge against the dealer who, years before, killed one of his best friends.

Stas is a third-generation descendant of the Koreans forcibly relocated by Stalin to populate the Soviet Union's Asian republics. This dark, half-forgotten detail of 20th century history is recounted by a father to his child in the film's expositionary prologue -- a "sad fairy tale" about a "very mean man," but ending with the hope that the Korean-Uzbeks might yet find their “Hanaan,” or promised land.

Pak's own background is near identical to that of his characters, and his intimate knowledge of the Korean-Uzbek situation -- their cultural assimilation hampered by the fact that many can speak Russian but not Uzbek -- gives his film a freshness and originality, which effectively counterbalances the predictability of Stas's painful path to perdition and redemption.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival
Production companies: Zamie Pictures, Flying Tiger Pictures
Cast: Stanislav Tyan, Bahodir Musaev, Ilbek Faiziev, Dmitry Eum, Ruslan Pak
Director/screenwriter: Ruslan Pak
Producer: Ellen Y. D. Kim
Director of photography: Tae-sik Um
Music: Hyun-min Park, jun-ja-yang
Editors: Ruslan Pak, Se-hoon Lee
Sales: M-Line Distribution, Seoul
No rating, 84 minutes

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