Russia's dark soul: a horror film from an unusual source

Night Watch is shaking up audiences - and Quentin Tarantino
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The Independent Culture

I met the director, Timur Bekmambetov, a bear-like and immensely media-savvy figure (his mother and sister are journalists), earlier this year in Central Europe. He was attending the Czech film festival in Karlovy Vary, and had a gentle,watchful and somewhat self-effacing manner quite at odds with the Grand Guignol pomp of his movie. A few week ago I met him again, in a five-star hotel a short walk from Red Square.

Russian cinema, that marvellously austere and cerebral theatre of lost hopes, has been in the doldrums for years. The only people who funded Russian films were gangsters laundering dirty money, and the people trying to make them were mainly down-at-heel poets of celluloid, reaching for an audience that no longer existed. Night Watch is a familiar enough fantasy of witches, shape-shifters and vampires who live among as us everyday folk. By day they look normal, but by night the masks slip to reveal the truly alarming and feral. The forces of "light" and the forces of "dark" have agreed to a truce to keep a balance and to not involve humankind in their demonic and ghastly affairs. But a sequence of events around a troubled young woman threatens to destabilise this ancient treaty. And, now, will the main character, played by Konstantin Khabensky be able to prevent his young son from going over the dark side?

Sergei Lukyanenko's bestselling novel has proved effective (even if Bekmambetov junked 70 per cent of it) when it comes to creating a whole new genre in the movies - a slick Hollywood-style supernatural blockbuster with slatherings of queasy Russian social realism, like the smell of borshch in haunted high-rises that suffer from concrete cancer. The magnificent paradox is that the paranormal Night Watch is the most profoundly normal thing to have happened in the Russian film industry for years. In almost every way Night Watch is flashy and derivative. There are the borrowings from Jonathan Glazer's Radiohead music videos, the inevitable lifts from Buffy, The Omen, Blade, The Matrix, The Crow and so on. And yet there's a dash, a moral equivalence at work here that is completely new in this kind of mainstream movie. Where Star Wars has a simplistic view of good and evil, Bekmambetov has come up with a completely different perspective, informed, he says, by the shamanism of his grandfather.

"Night Watch is shamanistic film-making," he asserts, as we sit down in a small conference room. He is personable as ever, round and bearded. But didn't he have a Muslim upbringing? "Kazakhstan is not really Islamic," he explains. "Its original culture is nature-gods and the wind. The American producers which we now have on board have had very great problems with all this, because American film culture has very strong rules and everything has to be explained."

Unlike Star Wars, I suggest, Night Watch is about a balance of light and dark. Even the supposed good guy has a little of the villain in him. "Good and bad is a very childish and naive concept," Bekmambetov explains. "Good means what's good for you and bad what's bad for you. It's about freedom and responsibility. Dark represents freedom but light represents responsibility". And which is he? "Like everyone I'm in between! I have a fight going on inside all the time."

Rumours of deals with Russian DVD pirates turn out to be true, according to the director. "We contacted the pirates and got them to distribute the DVD," he confirms. "So they protected us during the theatrical release. We don't know the rules," he laughs. "We are Russian, playing our own game."

'Night Watch' is out now