'Sveta': Film Review | Tokyo 2017

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
Laura Koroleva in 'Sveta.'
A tough, unsettling film that leaves the audience speechless.

A nearly wordless drama by Kazakh filmmaker Zhanna Issabayeva describes a world of deaf-mutes devoid of sentimentality and tenderness.

There are no excuses for murder, though there are explanations, as Zhanna Issabayeva’s unsettling fifth feature Sveta sets out to demonstrate. The anxiety of a deaf-mute woman faced with the bank repossessing her apartment could have been a gloomy piece of post-Soviet sociology; instead, this film is something else altogether: powerful, angry and unapologetically modern. Shot in sign language and in unbroken traveling shots that put the viewer inside the protag’s head, the drama is not easy to watch, but it’s also hard to look away.  After the film's bow in Tokyo competition, it should become a festival hit with a chance for niche crossover.

If Sveta is riveting, much credit goes to its determined lead actress Laura Koroleva, who overturns every film stereotype with a vengeance. Suffice it to say that impaired hearing is never even mentioned; it is simply the long-accepted badge of this particular group of struggling people. Here the writer-director-producer from Kazakhstan returns to the underlying themes of her films, from her 2007 debut Karoy to the award-winning 2013 Nagima, of how a harsh and loveless chlldhood can destroy a person's very humanity. 

The fact that virtually the whole story unfolds in Russian sign language, with barely a smattering of spoken Russian, already makes it exceptional, though Andrey Rezinkin’s richly detailed soundtrack keeps the ears tuned in. Narratively speaking, there is no need for spoken words. Sveta is a seamstress in a small garment factory, where she is the foreman of her floor, and everyone, including the manager, is hearing impaired. When a bank repo man turns up to give her a two-week deadline to make back mortgage payments before her apartment goes into foreclosure, they argue through an interpreter.

At home, more surprises await. Sveta has two small children who, like her young husband, Ruslan (Roman Lystsov), are deaf-mutes. Disabled or not, the family exhibits precious little caring or love – one flashes on the selfish, indifferent parents in Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. The couple also shows little harmony. Sveta unsheathes all her aggression in a futile attempt to get Ruslan to step up to the bat on the foreclosure threat. He dismayingly evades her.   

But new problems are on the offing. In an early standout scene, the compassionate manager announces that, due to a decline in orders, the factory is forced to fire 12 seamstresses and one foreman -- Sveta. Although she has seniority and a degree, the management has decided to give her place to Valya (Varvara Masyagina) because the latter is a single mother.

The angry response of the women who have been let go is no less powerful for being expressed with flying hands and arms and knitted brows. Sveta’s motto, we will learn, is “fight, bite and never give up.” Her fury subsides in a look of determination, and when she jerks on a low-cut sundress and storms off down the street, the viewer feels sure she has decided the only way out is prostitution.

Once again, expectations are overturned. Sveta’s plan is not to sell herself, but to kill the person who is standing between her and her job. By the end of the film’s first act, she is back at her sewing machine, showing no sign of any weight on her conscience. On the contrary, she is still scheming how to make the mortgage payments. This time she involves Ruslan in a diabolical plan to appropriate his beloved 92-year-old granny’s apartment.

It’s hard to see a strong, disabled heroine behave like a heartless, amoral villainess, but this is exactly what Sveta is. In an arresting performance, Koroleva pulls no punches and makes no concessions. She’s as immoral as the repulsive anti-hero of Karoy and no less self-interested. We can see her difficulties in being a mother in her interaction with her kids – hers is not tough love, just tough. Still, all the evil she does is aimed at keeping the family together and a roof over their heads, and deep down she seems to care for her children more than the icy-hearted mother in Nagima, to name one negative example.

Issabayeva waits until the last two shots to reveal the universe of pain behind Sveta's emotionless face of steel, and they say it all about the deep-seated violence in Kazakh society, particularly toward the defenseless like children and orphans. As the end credits scroll by in utter silence, there is a lot to ponder on.

The tech credits make few missteps, from the nicely compressed editing to limiting the heroine's wardrobe to three cheap but sexy outfits that she wears over and over. Mikhail Blintsov's cinematography quietly captures the spirit of the low-rent locations without looking down on them, while the camera unobtrusively trails Sveta through her world. 

Production company: Sun Production
Cast: Laura Koroleva, Roman Lystsov, Nataliya Kolesnikova, Alim Mendibayev, Varvara Masyagina
Director/screenwriter/producer: Zhanna Issabayeva
Director of photography: Mikhail Blintsov
Production designer: Dzhalalatdin Ibragimov
Costume designer: Inga Zadarnovskaya
Editor: Azamat Altybasov
Sound: Andrey Rezinkin
Casting director: Kenzhekiz Kairbayeva
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
99 minutes

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