The Alien Girl (Chuzhaya)
Russia (2010) Dir. Anton Bormatov
It is probably fair to say that when expecting countries to produce films based on graphic novels, Russia isn’t one that automatically springs to mind. So allow this debut offering from Anton Bormatov., based on the work of Vladimir “Adolfych” Nesterenko, a former crime gang member turned writer, to put that right for you.
In the early 1990’s a thug working for crime boss Rasp (Eugene Mundum) has been arrested for a gangland murder and is pressurised into naming his comrades. To prevent him from talking, Rasp sends his top men – Kid (Kirill Poluhin), Whiz (Evgeny Tkachuk), Beef (Anatoly Otradnov) and Booger (Alexander Golubkov) – to Prague to retrieve Angela aka Alien (Natalia Romanycheva), the man’s sister, who is working there as a call girl.
Why is she called Alien? We are told at the start it is because she and her brother felt like aliens when growing up in an orphanage, but come the end of the film and it is revealed this odd nickname was earned for a different and deeply unpleasant reason. The events which unfold in between these points go a long way to support this even though Alien is posited as the de facto protagonist.
True to the unprincipled and pernicious nature of the criminal underworld there are no “good guys” in this tale, which presumably Nesternko chose to deliberate reflect in his writing, drawing on his real life experience. Alien doesn’t fulfil the traditional “good guy” role since she was the resident femme fatale of Rasp’s gang who was sent away to Prague when she accidentally killed two Kazakh policeman.
Alien also worked tricks to stay alive in Prague before being sent to work for some Czech gypsies who drugged and beat her. It is from here that Kid and the guys have to liberate Alien and of course it isn’t going to be a straightforward deal and soon the bullets are flying and the body count starts in earnest.
Our first meeting with Alien is rather obscure, shot from a POV aspect to maintain a sense of mystery until she is dragged into the waiting van where we finally see a bedraggled and bruised blonde woman struggling to stay awake. Alien quickly gets a makeover from Kid’s men, her haircut into a bob and dyed brunette to aid her incognito escape but with it brings a strange change in attitude.
This is where the story gets interesting as Alien is a lot smarter than the men take her for and begins to manipulate them to her advantage, getting Whiz onside. The arrogant and hotheaded youngster is often at the centre of any extraneous trouble and Alien uses her sexuality to play to his ego, soon to have him wrapped around her finger and unwittingly conducting her divisive business for her.
As female roles go this is an interesting one as a number of tropes are found inside this one beguiling woman. She is a vixen, no question of that, but she is smart with it; she is ruthless when she has to be yet she is standing up for herself; she is strong and self reliant but seems haunted by being damaged goods. We know we shouldn’t root for her since she is no better than the criminals she associates with but we want her to have a better life.
Where the script, adapted from Nesternko’s graphic novel by Sergey Sokolyuk, falters is in the rushed exposition for the characters especially Alien. It seems it was felt sufficient enough that we learn Alien was an orphan and late become a criminal’s whore, but how did she end up that way? Just because she was an orphan she would naturally end up a whore? Or is this just a reflection on the fate of the lower classes in the Ukraine?
It is also touched upon that Kid and Alien have a past but nothing is elaborated on, an angle which could have added an extra drama and tension to the proceedings. Elsewhere Rasp is reduced to a paper-thin clichéd nasty crime boss, big on drugs, tough in his talk and believing he is untouchable. And when the cast have nicknames like Booger, Beef, the Jew and other comical monikers, the film’s graphic novel origins are exposed.
At 96 minutes it does feel as if some areas of the story have been clipped to make way for the extreme violence and obligatory gratuitous sex scene, the former is not particularly inventive but is shocking in the straightforward coldness of the execution. If this is based on Nesternko’s former life then he has seen some pretty awful things to re-imagine them here and he is not shy in sharing it with us. This candour gives the film a much needed grittiness and realistic edge to the violence and the inner workings of a crime organisation.
With an open ending and lack of positive resolve all round, the picture painted here is very bleak, reinforcing the old maxim that “crime doesn’t pay” as much as it suggests that the Ukraine is a land offers no future for anyone unless it is down the unsavoury path operating on the other side of the law. To his credit, Nesternko makes a very good argument for keeping your nose clean.
The cast are uniformly good in their roles, making the most of their limited character definitions and familiar crime thriller set-ups. Evgeny Tkachuk deserves a mention for essaying Whiz’s gradual transition from immature hothead to smitten, headstrong deserter, complimenting the calculated and enigmatic aura of Natalia Romanycheva’s Alien.
For a first time effort The Alien Girl is confidently directed with Anton Bormatov showing promise in this genre and should prove a capable filmmaker once he discovers his own voice. As it stands the gaps in the story and character development are the only set back in what is a perfectly acceptable crime thriller.