In Alien Girl, Anton Bormatov’s skuzzy, frequently brutal crime picture, gangsterism stands as the ultimate expression of the post-Soviet profit motive. Set in 1993 in the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, the Russian filmmaker’s debut unfolds in a smoky underworld of leather-jacketed thugs exchanging profanity-laced threats and gunshots, prostitutes plying their trade in a graffiti filled tunnel—and the nascent outcroppings of Western popular culture. When four Ukranian gangsters travel to Prague to bring back the title character, the sister of an arrested associate primed to testify against their crack-addled boss, they sit in a skuzzy hotel room while the video for Snap!’s “I Got the Power” plays on the television, its punchy presence utterly alien in the immediate—as well as the larger geopolitical—surroundings.
Bormatov and screenwriter Sergey Sokolyuk don’t overplay the post-Soviet culture-clash angle (they’d rather record the brutal consequences of corrupt capitalism than analyze them), but they stage two telling sequences early in the film that speak effectively, if not eloquently, to the transitional state of the region. The first, strictly symbolic, finds the gangsters en route to the Czech Republic stopping an elderly farmer pushing a bundle of hay through the road. They kidnap him and, after threatening to bash his head in with a baseball bat, let him off with an emblematic gesture, a tap on the back of the head, thus miming the killing of the agricultural past by the free-market present. Later, when the men arrive in the more open—and more conventionally capitalist—Prague and sip beers at a local café, they take in the anything goes atmosphere of the café: As mohawked punks cavort in one corner, the brutish hitmen stick out like a sore historical memory, an unwanted reminder of the brutality of the Czechs’s former imperialist masters. “Russian scum,” a waiter mutters under his breath.
Scum may be right, not just in describing the hitmen, one of whom is quickly shot and dispensed with, but in labeling the entire world of corruption and violence that Bormatov happily lingers on. Following a bloody shootout, the men rescue the woman known as “Alien” (Natalia Romanycheva), who had been chained naked and filthy to a radiator in her captive’s apartment for a month. But in a world in which raw brutality is the necessary form that capitalism takes, Alien turns out to be the most brutal capitalist of them all. Seducing the softest of the three remaining gangsters, the only character in the entire film with anything resembling a conscience, she sets out to dispense of his two associates and then rob their boss, an action she accomplishes through the torture of the man who guards his stash of gold. (In this decidedly un-PC film, the character is known simply as “the Jew”). As she commands her underlings to pour hot water over the man’s open wounds, she cements her status as the top operator in the Ukrainian underworld, a position further stabilized by her paying off of corrupt police interests for protection.
Visually, Alien Girl feels both low-budget and ultra-slick (witness an unnecessary slow-motion shot of a man throwing a brick through a window). Bormatov’s hazy cinematography (courtesy of DPs Dmitri Kuvshinov and Anastasiy Michailov) effectively transforms nocturnal glimpses of slimy locales into misty nightmarescapes, but it serves the more pedestrian, daytime shots less well, especially given the director’s largely undistinguished framings. The pacing, too is inconsistent, with a lengthy lull in the middle as violence gives way (temporarily) to a romance predicated around a lengthy, and decidedly unsexy, love scene. Lacking much in the way of nuance or grace, the film must rely on its insistent scuzziness and relentless brutality for it to be effective, but when it’s dealing in bloody corpses and double crosses it remains a consistently compelling look at the basest forms of a corrupt economic system. And sometimes the most useful way to critique a system is to plunge headlong into its putrid, stinking underbelly.