International Cinema: The Needle (1988) - Reviewed

Most cinephiles know such countercultural film movements such as the French New Wave or New German Cinema characterized by their lack of a direct narrative and their subversion of conventional norms began sometime in the 1960s.  While most world cinema movements defying the expectations and traditions of the big studio system, the desire to affront and subvert film didn’t reach the Soviet Union until around the 1980s, beginning notably with the debut of director Rashid Nugmanov’s 1988 film The Needle.

Considered to be the first Russian film to highlight drug abuse affecting Soviet youths, the film follows Moro (rock star Viktor Tsoi of the rock band Kino), a drifter sauntering his way through Alma-Ata mingling with criminals and debtors in the area.  On his aimless odyssey through the slums and nightclubs of Russia, he runs into his ex-girlfriend Dina (Marina Smirnova) whose employer/surgeon Dr. Artur (rock star Pyotr Mamonov) is supplying her with drugs.  In an effort to try and help Dina detox, Moro drags her away from the city into the Aral Sea, now a desolate dry desert. 
Utilizing a wide variety of cinematographic techniques including some animated segments in the opening credits and throughout the film, The Needle looks sort of like a Russian Melville or Rivette film that’s high on boundary breaking iconography and low on conventional narrative structure.  Think of it as a Russian Breathless by way of the occasional abrasive depiction of drug addiction glimpsed in Christiane F.  Mostly however the film basks in the long-haired leather jacketed cool of Moro who looks a bit like the bastard child of Bruce Lee and Jim Morrison.  So charismatic is Tsoi onscreen in (amazingly) one of his only film roles, you could watch the film in silence and still be taken in by his magnetically debonair cool.

One of the very first of its kind in the Kazakh New Wave, The Needle would go on to become one of the most popular films in the Soviet Union in 1989.  Moreover, the film represented one of the most formally rebellious pictures ever produced within the country with a sex icon of its very own.  Set to a pulsating original rock/synth score by Kino and frequently cut together like a longform music video montage, The Needle captures a snapshot of a changing Russian landscape as well as offering up a kind of punk rock band’s answer to all of the world’s own disparate countercultural film movements. 

--Andrew Kotwicki