November 5, 2012. New York, NY

Viewer's Film Review. Valentyn Vasianovych's Business as Usual.

Tolik (right) in search for the absent sense of his life.

Valentyn Vasianovych's 2012 debut, Business as Usual, is in some ways a story of a very usual occurrence: a man reaches the middle of his life only to realize that he's not entirely sure what he's done with it. Tolik (Taras Denysenko) is, by most measures, a rather ordinary person. He kept postponing taking charge of his life and pursuing his dreams, for he somehow kept thinking his best years were yet to come. Suddenly he realizes, however, that he will die if he doesn't make serious changes. Although the story is in some ways familiar, Vasianovych ties together his exploration of human desires, shortcomings, pain, and enthusiasms in an unconventional way using despair, humor, and yes, even poetry.

The film, which is set in contemporary Kyiv, progresses from the day Tolik resigns, rather is fired, from his job as a psychotherapist in a state-run hospital. His wife, Marta (Lesia Samayeva), sees this as another in an increasingly long chain of misfortunes her barely adequate husband has managed to bring upon himself. Tolik, on the other hand, somewhat impassively perceives this as the push he needed to explore new possibilities; as he himself admits, he wouldn't have had the courage to quit on his own. Thus begins a series of ambitious hare-brained schemes dreamt up by his eager buddy, Slavik (Vitaliy Linetsky). Though he claims to have a few passions, beyond a few feeble attempts, Tolik never demonstrates the resolve necessary to bring meaningful change to his life. Predictably, his unhappiness and the state of indecision it leaves him in gradually unravel the fragile threads holding his life together.

Yet for all the serious questions it raises about disillusionment, the masquerade that is society, and even clinical depression, Business as Usual is not a drama. In fact Vasianovych is actually promoting it as a comedy. In this respect, the movie is representative of Ukrainian humor at large: moments of bittersweet comedy are found in the midst of woe. Repeated allusions to banal themes and objects result in humor by association. Absurdity (e.g. adults dressed as mushrooms) contrasts with a calm mundanity (e.g. an argument about one's in-laws) to create a general atmosphere of nonchalant black humor. Perhaps it is for this reason that the slapstick scene of a thwarted assassination at an elaborate funeral for a prize pooch is particularly distracting. This and a handful of other equally far-fetched outliers that don't really serve to advance the plot, ultimately do more harm to the unity of the film than they can make up for comedically.

Business as Usual debuted at the Odesa International Film Festival to considerable viewers' acclaim, but it has not yet been released for the general Ukrainian public. It will be interesting to see how it is received and whether Ukrainians see something of their own in it. On the one hand it can certainly be viewed as a portrait of today's Ukraine, but like all artists, Vasianovych takes some creative liberties and it's not entirely clear if it is supposed to be taken as a commentary on modern society. There are hints in Tolik's narration that it might be—he assesses the social role of the "hypermarket," he cynically critiques the farcical social games he sees around him. On the other hand, it is quite conceivable that future audiences will simply be delighted to see themselves portrayed on celluloid directly, without the interference of an intermediating state, language, or culture. The poems Tolik recites both reinforce the primacy of the language being used and evoke Ukraine's poetic tradition. Many scenes and motifs are indisputably Ukrainian and would probably not come off as universal to a foreign viewer. Vasianovych goes so far as to have the national anthem performed by a church bell choir in the background while Tolik beats a pair of hooligans (sort of dressed like monks) with the flag. Symbolism doesn't get much more blatant than that, yet just what is being implied is a bit harder to crack. In other words, it is obvious this film is firmly situated in the body of Ukrainian national cinema, but this only provokes further questions.


Wednesday, October 10, a large audience gathered at Columbia University for the US premiere of Vasianovych's debut feature film. It was heartily received by an audience that laughed at all the funny parts and equally gasped and sighed where appropriate. Viewers were very appreciative of the film itself and the chance to watch it; there was a general joy in the fact that there are people doing such work. Those who asked questions afterwards expressed the hope that Vasianovych's next project won't also take 6 years to complete. Yet with the current state of funding and distribution in Ukraine (where the state is the only reliable financier, preference is given to new artists, and almost no money can be made at the box office) we should perhaps consider ourselves fortunate if he got away with two movies in a dozen years.

Ali Kinsella,
Columbia University


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