Story of an Old Woman: Busan Review

"Story of an Old Woman"
Boosted by a powerful lead performance, but undermined by an emphasis on melodrama.

Alexey Gorlov's single-shot familial drama stars Central Asian screen legend Liya Nelskaya as a wheelchair-bound retiree facing the end.

In most cases, single-shot feature-length films are meant to elevate the director as their true star: established auteurs have seen their pedigree heightened further (as with Alexander Sokurov for Russian Ark) and young filmmakers have been propelled to fame with their formalist efforts (as in the case of Uruguay's Gustavo Hernandez after The Silent House). Kazakhstan's Alexey Gorlov likely hoped for the same with his single-take sophomore effort Story of An Old Woman; but the Steadicam-shot feature has turns out to be more a celebration of the 81-year-old lead actress who, throughout the film, barely moves.

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And this is not just because Liya Nelskaya, a national treasure in the Central Asian country, passed away in March before the film was completed. While appearing on screen largely confined to a wheelchair and with her acting restricted to movements of the eyes and also very slight facial contortions, her (literally) understated performance offers more of an emotional engagement than Gorlov's constantly swerving cameras, soap opera-esque screenplay and excessively sweeping score.

In what is to be her final film, Nelskaya plays Anna, a paralyzed pensioner whose family is trying to accommodate after she moves back to the lush mansion she used to live in before being relocated to an elderly home. As the film unfolds, the motives of this sudden surge of familial love are gradually revealed: Anna's children are now welcoming her back because her presence is deemed essential for a financial windfall brought about by a good deed she might have done during the second world war.

But the gradual unraveling relationships among the members of the clan are driven mostly by melodramatic clichés -- bickering couples, alcoholic cousins and narcissistic youngsters -- and, in fact, it's easy to question why Story's narrative is appropriate for a one-take treatment. Perhaps this is why Gorlov opted to push all buttons -- to whip up emotions. But the master actress instead teaches him a last lesson: sometimes less is more.

New Currents, Busan International Film Festival
Production Company: Alamas Production
Director: Alexey Gorlov
Cast: Liya Nelskaya, Eugeniy Zhumanov, Oksana Boychenko, Polina Frolova
Screenplay: Alexey Gorlov
Cinematographer: Alexey Kirukhin
Editor: Konstantin Terentiev
Music: Svyatoslav Stakanov
Sound: Denis Konoplev
In Kazakh
75 minutes