Review: Phi 1.618
- Bulgarian-Canadian animator Theodore Ushev's first feature is an anti-utopia fairytale that questions scientific progress against the backdrop of post-communist decadence
Each Eastern bloc county has generated its cinematic reflections on its totalitarian past and they have kept doing it throughout the last three decades after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. In the case of Bulgaria, the most profound analyses on screen were initiated by scriptwriter and producer Vladislav Todorov who, besides his work in cinema, wrote scholarly books on political aesthetics and global governance. Hence, no wonder that all three films based on his novels are dissections of totalitarian authority – Yavor Gardev’s Zift [+see also:
film profile], Emil Chistov’s The Color of Chameleon [+see also:
interview: Emil Christov
film profile], and Theodore Ushev’s Phi 1.168 [+see also:
film profile] which just celebrated its international premiere at the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. While the first two are submerged more concretely into the Bulgarian communist reality back in the day, the latest one uses the locally popular Buzludzha Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party as a set; however, its scope of social commentary and criticism is rather universal.
The title refers to the Golden Ratio and to the human striving to achieve perfection. Phi 1.168 describes a world that has reached such a point, apparently at the price of mass destruction – in a post-apocalypse environment, the ruling class of men, called bio-titans, have already eliminated pain and attained immortality, while social lowlands inhabited by the ugly and mortal urungels, exist only to serve as donors – just one day but happy. Reproduction together with women themselves is not necessary anymore, therefore the most beautiful among the female species, named Fia (Irmena Chichikova), has been frozen for eternity, waiting to be awakened by the one who would again crave intimacy. His name is Krypton (Deyan Donkov), a bio-titan tasked with the mission to copy and preserve all the books created by mankind. The only forbidden book turns out to be another ethereal woman named Gargara (Martina Apostolova) who can heal with tears, poison with blood, and communicate with him telepathically. She brings Krypton on a journey among the plebeians before the launch of the bio-titan spaceship set out to conquer the Cosmos (with decaying Buzludzha converted into a capsule); a journey of initiation towards truth and love, just like in every proper fairytale.
In this genre shaped by but deviating from the norms of philosophic sci-fi, experienced artist and animator Theodore Ushev visualises Todorov’s ideas with an experimental verve by mixing retouched photographic images with bits of drawn animation, avant-garde industrial design with graphic reminiscences of socialist realism, refined taste with vulgar elements, inspired by Bulgaria’s current turbo folk pop culture. Probably for that reason, the film looks contemporary and retro at the same time, and is thus in line with its concept on the edge between conceptual art and romanticism. In its essence, the plot discloses social control as all sci-fi anti-utopias basically do by manifesting the obvious yet neglected conclusion that mortality and pain are part of being alive – once eliminated, we might keep existing, but it’s highly questionable if we keep living.
Phi 1.168 could hardly be called exciting since one barely connects on an emotional level, although the plot renounces the loss of passion and sentiments in a high-tech realm. But it is definitely a rewarding intellectual and aesthetic experience with countless visual and cultural references underneath its seemingly simplified narrative construction so that spectators can co-create as many versions as their cultural background and fantasy allow.
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