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Torn between her drab post-Communist homeland and her glamorous fantasies of America, the ambitious young heroine of Crystal Swan clearly shares some autobiographical parallels with the film’s writer-director Darya Zhuk. Born and raised in the former Soviet republic of Belarus but now based in Brooklyn, Zhuk is a Harvard and Columbia graduate whose debut feature has just world-premiered at the Karlovy Vary film festival in the East of the West competition strand.
Not without flaws but still impressively assured for a first feature, Crystal Swan boasts a luminous lead performance from rising Russian screen queen Alina Nasibullina, plus a sparky, sardonic script by Zhuk and Helga Laudauer. An international co-production with multiple U.S. partners in the mix, including Vice Films, this bittersweet coming-of-age comedy should grab further festival play based on its mildly exotic setting and timely immigration subplot. Already named as the first Belarussian Oscar submission in 22 years, Zhuk’s lively indie charmer also has enough universal resonance for niche theatrical potential.
Crystal Swan may be set in the culturally specific context of mid-1990s Minsk, but there are restless young women like Velya (Nasibullina) in every decade in every backwater town. A rainbow-haired bohemian butterfly dreaming of brighter lights in bigger cites, Velya is anxious to escape the stifling provincialism of her homeland and seek her fortune as a club DJ in America. At home in Minsk she has a clownish junkie boyfriend (Yuriy Borisov) and an eccentric hippie mother (Svetlana Anikey), who is a patriotic museum official who strongly disapproves of her daughter’s emigration schemes — which only makes Velya’s escape plan more enticing, of course.
The penniless Velya occasionally plays rave music to a half-empty warehouse club, which also serves as a visually striking storage space for old Communist-era statues. But her big dream is relocation to Chicago, the home of house music. Indeed, she is in the early stages of applying for a U.S. visa but she knows her poverty and scrappy employment record could wreck her chances, so she lies about having a reliably dull but well paid job making ornamental crystal in a factory town outside Minsk, only to give the U.S. embassy the wrong phone number on her forged application form. On learning that embassy officials will call to check her bogus employment references, Velya feels her American Dream slipping through her fingers.
Desperately clutching at straws, an enterprising Velya travels to the crystal factory town and tracks down the apartment where her fake phone number is registered. She begs the bickering family inside for help with her visa scam, but the ruling matriarch Alya (Lyudmila Razumova) is far too busy with wedding preparations for her son Stepan (Ivan Mulin), a sullen army veteran who seems less-than-thrilled about his impending marriage. Despite an initially chilly reception, Velya’s persistence pays off and she is eventually permitted to stand guard over the family phone for several days, attracting flirtatious interest from Stepan and suspicious gossip from most of the neighborhood.
Though it is mostly pitched as an exuberant, irreverent celebration of youthful individualism, Crystal Swan takes some unexpectedly dark turns in its final act. Just as the screenplay seems to be leading us down a familiar path, in which a jaded big-city diva wakes up to the folksy provincial charms of her homeland, Velya’s quest takes an ugly, violent turn. Zhuk still handles these events lightly, maintaining an uneasy tone somewhere between boisterous farce and black comedy, but her story ends on a note of bruised fatalism. While this bitter coda jars a little, it lends more emotional heft to the young heroine’s dreams of escape.
Despite its relatively unusual setting, Crystal Swan is a largely conventional fish-out-of-water story at heart. But it is elevated above the routine by its excellent cast, especially Nassibulina, and plenty of visual flair. Zhuk and her Brazilian cinematographer Carolina Costa shoot in the more compressed 4:3 Academy ratio to emphasize Velya’s sense of feeling trapped in Belarus, but they also suggest hope with an eye-pleasing palette of vivid primary colors. Velya’s apparently all-consuming love of house music could have featured more prominently in the plot, though admittedly the throbbing soundtrack does feature a handful of Chicago club legends including Marshall Jefferson and Derrick Carter.
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Production companies: Demarsh Films, Fusion Features, Unfound Content, Vice Films, Crystal Goose, Nashe Kino, Belarusfilm
Cast: Alina Nasibullina, Ivan Mulin, Yury Borisov, Svetlana Anikej, Ilya Kapanets, Anastasiya Garvey, Ludmila Razumova, Natalya Onishenko, Anatoly Golub
Director: Darya Zhuk
Screenwriters: Helga Landauer, Darya Zhuk
Producers: Birgit Gernbock, Olga Goister, Debbie Vandermeulen, Valery Dmitrotchenko
Cinematographer: Carolina Costa
Editors: Sergey Dmitrenko, Michal Leszczylowski
Sales company: Loco Films, Paris
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