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GOCRITIC!

GoCritic! Review: Crystal Swan

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- Nick Mastrini says the first Oscar entry ever from Belarus, screening in Karlovy Vary's East of the West, boasts elegant styling and a strong performance by actress Alina Nasibullina

GoCritic! Review: Crystal Swan

Minsk, 1996: misfit Velya (Alina Nasibullina), a law graduate and DJ, longs to make it to America and experience Chicago house music from its source. Darya Zhuk’s debut feature Crystal Swan [+see also:
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explores young adulthood in the context of a post-Soviet environment in which, as Velya’s mother (Svetlana Anikej) laments, ‘there are no jobs’ and established traditions remain vital. Velya’s path to American freedom is complicated when an erroneous visa application leaves her stranded in a rural town, where she is begrudgingly hosted by the family whose telephone number she mistakenly submitted as her own. Superbly shot and boasting an engaging central performance by Nasibullina, Crystal Swan vividly captures a young woman’s life in stasis and a country at a cultural crossroads.

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House music imbues Zhuk’s film with a modern, rhythmic motif at odds with the stubborn Belarusian tradition typified by Velya’s mother. Idiosyncratically wrapped in the bold primary colours of her coat, sweater and scarf, Velya is foregrounded against a backdrop of grey costumes, embroidered patterns and floral furniture. The opening scene characterises her as a stranger in her home city, denigrated by a trio of boys aboard a bus for wearing a bright blue wig. For Velya, ‘nothing ever changes’ in Belarus: cassettes, headphones and nights spent moonlighting as a DJ are a welcome distraction.

Zhuk allows room for levity in a narrative driven by the tension of a potential phone call. Velya’s boyfriend Alik (Yuriy Borisov) is a Shakespearean clown, donning 90s streetwear and constantly jolting to his headphones’ offering of techno. Statues and busts of Russian leaders are scattered around their Minsk nightclub, relics of the past repurposed for ironic hedonism. Despite Alik’s promise that ‘everything will change after the party’, Velya follows her instinct and pursues her path to America. She is an individualist aiming to write her own story; an early scene seems to lead with her expositional narration until it is revealed to be a rehearsal for her consul interview.

But the obstacles of bureaucracy bring Velya to the provincial Crystal Town, where she must await a phone call from the US embassy. Her perseverance is compelling, proven by the smudged letterhead she copies from the town’s crystal factory for her visa application, and the Armani logo she stitches onto an ordinary jacket to sell for profit. This characterisation is crucial when most of those that surround the protagonist are untrustworthy, threatening her familial bonds and sexual freedom. The Crystal Town family’s eldest son Stepan (Ivan Mulin) is affected by masculine expectations, afraid of being described as a ‘bitch’ by his peers. This threat of verbal and physical violence pervades the film and links to the stasis Velya experiences, imprisoned within an archaic world.

Zhuk’s film, which is Belarus’ entry to the 2019 Academy Awards, can expect success with such a strong lead performance from Nasibullina and the film’s elegant styling. Its pop colours, reminiscent of Pedro Almodóvar’s work, provide visual entertainment despite the narrative’s tragic, anti-climactic path. Throughout, the optimism of Velya’s American dream remains in juxtaposition with a society still progressing from the totalitarian and patriarchal status quo. It is a tale of innocence leading to experience, as both Velya and Belarus face the uncertainty of the first years of personal and national independence.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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