'The Man Who Surprised Everyone' ('Tchelovek Kotorij Udivil Vseh'): Film Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Death and cross-dressing square off in a satisfying moral tale.

Directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov jump from a Russian folk tale into gender-bending modernity when a virile forest guard changes his sexual identity to cheat Death.

A man dying of cancer in a poor Siberian village risks everything for a last-ditch cure that will surprise most audiences, for sure. Like the folk tale it supposedly updates, The Man Who Surprised Everyone (Tchelovek Kotorij Udivil Vseh) is equal parts delightful, horrifying and thought-provoking, reaching deep into the characters’ psyches to expose their ingrained sexual prejudices. It picked up a best actress award for co-star Natalya Kudryashova on its Venice Horizons bow and a special mention at El Gouna. Its affecting condemnation of Russian attitudes to homosexuality should have art house audiences listening. This is one smart film about gender whose theme is capable of reaching well beyond the Rainbow Community.

Co-directors Natasha Merkulova and Aleksey Chupov, who also scripted, open with a clever first act that lulls viewers into believing they are watching a placid village drama about an honest forest guard in the taiga, Egor (Yevgeny Tsyganov), whose life is about to be cut short with cancer. As he silently hunts for poachers in his river boat, cruising through a Siberian Eden, his expression is unrevealing. Only his quick draw in a gun duel hints at frayed nerves and his inner tension.

A country doctor gives him two months to live, that’s if he’s lucky, and advises him to book a hospice to relieve his family of the burden of nursing him. His sunny young wife Natalia (Kudryashova), pregnant with their second child, can’t accept this verdict and begs the villagers for money to take him to a city doctor, but he only confirms the diagnosis. So she takes him to see the film’s first otherworldly character, an old Inuit medicine woman who dresses up like a crow and performs a wacky shamanic ritual. It doesn’t work.

Her treatment may be ineffective, but Egor does glean an idea from the old woman. She tells him the story of Zhamba the drake who, when informed it was his time to die, rolled in the dust and camouflaged himself as a female duck in a flock, so Death could not find him. That evening Egor stumbles home drunk and starts chasing the geese around his backyard. But he’s clearly not going to fool Death with that bunch.

New idea. He goes to a shopping mall and visits a woman’s store. That night, all alone in the tool shed, he dons panty hose, a red dress, heels and lipstick. It’s an incredible shock to see this wounded fighter for justice suddenly looking like Priscilla of the Desert; it’s even more of a scene-stopper when he emerges from his hideaway and, without any kind of fanfare, presents himself to the world as female.

The real story begins here, with the terrifying reactions of Egor’s family and neighbors. Playing the part of a woman requires him to remain mute, to ignore his family duties, to cut off all ties with his former identity. Being unable to tell people why he is suddenly cross-dressing, he inadvertently unleashes the worst of the rural Russian soul.

The filmmakers don’t mince the collateral damage his choice implies. Chupov and Merkulova’s 2013 feature, Intimate Parts, ventured into similar territory to explore, with barbed comedy, the attitude of sophisticated Russians to their own sexuality. Here the laughs die out quickly. Egor’s son is the first to suffer: bullied and beaten up at school, he refuses to leave his room. When the villagers turn up to gawk at Daddy, his adoring wife turns cold and kicks him out of the house.

But being ostracized from his home and family isn’t enough. Egor feels the need to display his new self; he walks to town and is attacked at a dance. Each new act of violence gives the townsfolk a license to go farther. Ganging up on the now defenseless woman, they use him as a punching bag and he suffers the torments of Job, culminating in a sickening scene in his beloved forest.

While Kudryashova brings a wide range of emotions to flesh out the character of the wife, Tsyganov is quietly magnificent in the main role. Both go far beyond fairy tale stereotypes, even while their acting follows timeworn paths that seem inexorable. The tech work is sheer simplicity, following the spirit of Egor’s quest in the most naturalistic way possible, without trying to prettify the mud-washed village and weather-beaten shacks. Vadim Krasnitsky's editing keeps the story-telling smooth and fluid.

Production companies: Pan Atlantic Studio, Homeless Bob Production, Arizona Productions, Non-Stop Production
Cast: Yevgeny Tsyganov, Natalya Kudryashova, Yuriy Kuznetsov, Vasiliy Popov, Pavel Maykov 
Directors, screenwriters: Natasha Merkulova, Aleksey Chupov  
Producers: Ekaterina Filippova, Katrin Kissa, Guillaume De Seille, Alexander Rodnyansky
Director of photography: Mart Taniel
Production designer: Sergey Avstrievskikh
Costume designer: Anna Bartuli
Editor: Vadim Krasnitsky
Music: Andrey Kurchenko
World sales: Pluto Films
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (competition)
105 mins.