Cult Cinema: Assa (1987) - Reviewed

Courtesy of Mosfilm
Can a film become a countercultural anthem that signifies major sociopolitical changes in a then-metamorphosizing country on the brink of transformative collapse?  Well back in 1987, Soviet-Russian writer-director Sergei Solovyov and co-writer Sergei Livnev’s searing yet highly experimental Crimean set rock-crime “Chernukha” Assa or ACCA brought about such changes with the emergence of the Soviet underground rock scene and the Perestroika film into mainstream popular consciousness.  Known as the only other film featuring legendary Russian rock performer Viktor Tsoi onscreen, Solovyov’s Assa soon evolved into a symbol of protest whose heavy emotional powers can still be felt by film and music lovers today.
Opening on an underground Russian rock concert with people dancing in Yalta, we meet curious and open minded Bananan (Sergei “Afrika” Bugaev) who functions as one of the drummers.  There his path crosses with Alika (Tatyana Drubich), a very young nurse who has formed a romantic relationship with her middle-aged patient Krymov (Stanislav Govorukhin), a intellectual bookworm who in actuality runs a criminal group overseen by dim KGB agents.  Unbeknownst to Krymov, Alika and Bananan quickly form a tight friendship that borders on romance as he introduces her to Soviet counterculture including but not limited to showing off his musical hero Nick Cave. 

Interspersed throughout the story is a period historical subplot involving a history book Krymov is reading about the assassination of Tsar Paul I of Russia (read onscreen by author Natan Eidelman), forming a parallel between the events of the past and present timelines.  After Krymov catches the two a bit closer together than he'd like, the criminal elder starts thinking very seriously about murdering the young boy who threatens his dominance over Alika, implying a symbolic tug-of-war between old and new Russia.
An experimental musical dramatic film odyssey told in episodic anecdotal form before boiling down to a symbolic allegory for the then-seismic political changes happening in Russia, Assa whether you approach this with knowledge of Russian history or not remains one of the most powerful movies ever made at the tail end of the Soviet Union.  Freely working in everything from experimental instrumental music by Aquarium front man Boris Grebenschikov as well as working in a number of Russian rock performers including Bravo, Yury Chernavsky, Vesyolye Rebyata and most notably Kino featuring Viktor Tsoi, Assa’s soundtrack when it isn’t veering into increasingly somber fare is a raging firestorm of needle drops.  To see Assa first and foremost is to hear the film and what it is saying with its songs. 
Shot on the Crimean-peninsula by renowned and legendary cinematographer Pavel Lebeshev of The Ascent and Hard to Be a God, the film looks extraordinarily beautiful even as it starts to wade through heavier emotional fare.  Take for instance the opening and closing musical numbers which feature everything from multicolored lights to strobing to glitter, transporting you the viewer into the Russian underground rock scene.  It has the feeling of exhilaration and excitement before pulling back in and out of dreary prisons, squalid houses barely afforded by its central characters and a wealth of scenery overlooking Crimea’s waters.  This isn’t just a film with ornate cinematography, however, it frequently uses editing and superimpositions in a way that feels hip and at times stoking a little bit of Stan Brakhage. 

The performances across the board, from Russian performance artist and painter Afrika as the film’s hero Bananan to Stanislav Govorukhin as the beleaguered and jealous mafioso to Tatyana Drubich as the innocent girl being torn between the young and the old, are all excellent.  But it’s Viktor Tsoi in a choice cameo predating his work on The Needle that brings the house angrily down, forming an emotional and sociopolitical ironclad fist.  

If Bananan represents the ordinary young Russian citizen being trampled upon by the rules of the old Russia represented by Krymov, then Viktor Tsoi playing himself in the film’s most famous and unforgettable scene is the logical culmination of those two extremes seen in microcosm.  So ferocious, intensely physical and charismatic is Tsoi’s performance in this movie, performed only at the age of twenty-four, it imprints itself into your repertoire almost immediately irrespective of your background or political leanings. 
Filmed over two months followed by another eight just to get it approved, Assa was initially misunderstood by the first viewers who dealt with it…then it became a countercultural symbol many credit with being contributory to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  For writer-director Sergei Solovyov, the film became the first installment of a trilogy of like-minded films tackling similarly controversial but important fare such as Black Rose – The Emblem of Sorrow, Red Rose – The Emblem of Love and House Under the Starry Sky.  

For the underground Russian rock music scene where Kino initially recorded most of their albums illegally, to have it catapulted right into the face of mainstream moviegoers was kind of shocking if not really very cool for its time and place.  To a western filmgoer still wading through the countless iterations of eastern European art, Assa is a metallic baseball spiked home run that might make you bleed a little but will leave you feeling refreshed if not deeply moved.  Simply put, one of the greatest Soviet films to emerge as the Union itself started to see itself ending.

--Andrew Kotwicki