Brand New Day
By Lauren Kaminsky
Dir. Timur Bekmambetov, Russia, Fox Searchlight
Sure, Day Watch may be a lousy vampire movie and an aggressive assault of light and sound, but beneath all that it’s also a brilliant essay on justice, gender, class, and politics in contemporary Russia. More akin to a mafia movie than the action/fantasy/horror/sci-fi/thriller Frankenstein it purports to be, Day Watch is the story of two families, each of which has hit men, a Don, a code of ethics, and a desire to keep it all in the family. Those who see the movie for the vampires will be disappointed; those who stay to watch the mob drama will be glad they did. What’s unique about Day Watch is that the families in question are not only vampires, shape-shifters, and sorcerers but also stand-ins for ideas about capitalism, communism, and the fate of the former Soviet empire.
Night Watch, the first film in Timur Bekmambetov’s trilogy, concerned the efforts of the supernatural Light Ones to police the vampiric Dark Ones on the streets of Moscow; its sequel, Day Watch is about the Dark Ones keeping the Light Ones in check. Naturally, certain necessary plot details of Day Watch, remarkable only for their absurdity, require one to suspend disbelief. For example, the 14th-century nomadic warrior Tamerlane invades a fortress in Samarkand in search of the “chalk of fate,” which he successfully swipes from a gold-dusted, Buddha-shaped man named Zoar, who is alive and well and running a noodle shop in Moscow six centuries later. Whoever is in possession of the “chalk of fate” has the power to literally rewrite his fate. Still with me? This becomes important in present-day Moscow, because the long truce between warring forces of light and dark is broken, the Dark Ones try to provoke the apocalypse, and the Light Ones need the “chalk of fate” in order to save the world.
In Day Watch, our familiar hero, Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a Light One who patrols Moscow as part of the Night Watch, looking for wrongdoing vampires, finds himself accused of murder by the Dark Ones of the Day Watch. In Night Watch, the plot turned on Anton’s actions; here, action largely happens around Anton, and his character is little more than a buffoonish cipher for the successes and failures of Russian masculinity. Right off the bat, the film begins mid-negotiation between Anton and beautiful, virginal Sveta (Maria Poroshina), a powerful Light One new to the Night Watch: he tells her to let him take the lead in their investigation; she ignores him and asks him out on a date. Clearly something is rotten in the state of Russia.
Gendered antics ensue when their boss, Geser (Vladimir Menshov), switches Anton’s body with that of his foxy female colleague, Olga (Galina Tyunina). The switcheroo ultimately allows for what should have been a gloriously gratuitous girl-on-girl make-out scene in the shower with Sveta (had the filmmakers not gotten cold feet and given Anton his body back before transporting the heterosexual couple to a completely random tropical waterfall). Wolfing down sandwiches and watching hockey, Sveta warns Anton-as-Olga, “If you give her a fat ass she’ll give you a fat lip!,” calling attention to the fact that food does not pass the lips of the females in this film, despite the fact that Anton and other male characters repeatedly chow down (the apocalypse may be eminent, but gender roles are firmly intact!). Although the special effects in Day Watch are a big improvement on those in Night Watch, they still cannot compare to the singular appeal of fight scenes in which girls who must subsist entirely on tea and cigarettes kick ass in impossibly high heels.
Anton and Sveta happen upon Yegor (Dima Martynov), a blood-sucking young Dark One whose existence and allegiance were the focus of Night Watch, which began with Anton’s visit to a witch who attempted and failed to abort Anton’s unborn child. Thus Yegor was born. As a consequence of the attempt, he grows up distrustful of the Light Ones, and becomes a powerful Dark One. Superfluous Anton laments, “My son is stronger than me and so is my female trainee.”
Here is the unholy trinity: the virgin Sveta, Anton the father, and his son, Yegor. Yegor and Sveta are “Great Others” from opposing sides, which apparently means that their battle royal will initiate the apocalypse. In the context of the film this contingency introduces what might be called the philanderer’s dilemma: if the son and the new girlfriend ever meet, the world will end. “You’ve come to take him away from me,” Yegor says to Sveta. “He has a family, you know. We don’t want you in our lives.” The film’s emphasis on Yegor’s paternity, Anton’s attempted abortion, and Sveta’s status as the other woman are not found in Sergei Lukyanenko’s trilogy of books, on which Bekmambetov’s films are based—and this is also where the smartest, most fascinating aspects of the film lie.
If only they could go back to 1992, to undo the attempted abortion! If only they could return to a time just after the fall of Communism, to the days before the 1993 constitutional crisis of the young Russian Republic that ended when tanks opened fire on Parliament. If only Yeltsin had never unleashed economic “shock therapy” on Russia, and if only he hadn’t consolidated the power of the presidency and then passed the torch to Putin, then Russia might have free press and elections. If only the oligarchs hadn’t been allowed to walk away with formerly state-owned industries in the process of privatization, then the balance of power wouldn’t have tipped in favor of the Mercedes-driving, bling-wearing, blood-sucking forces of darkness roaming the streets of Moscow today.
The irresponsible, selfish Dark Ones are literal and figurative vampires, elitist, arrogant consumers who act independently and remorselessly. The Light Ones may act no better, but at least they feel bad about it. The Light Ones of the Night Watch operate out of the city power company, that relic of the Soviet period, and they troop around in state-issued uniforms, drive an ancient box truck, and meet in old offices and apartments. The actors playing the Light Ones are well-regarded theater performers whose nuanced acting renders great (perhaps undeserved) service to characters written with at least the pretense of motivation, back story, and depth. In contrast, the Dark Ones look like MTV creations; they’re identified solely by their recognizable, brand-name clothing, jewelry, and cars, and in the case of gangster-moll Alisa (played by pop princess Zhanna Friske), art imitates life.
In the early Nineties, the film seems to suggest, some tried to abort Russia’s incubating democratic seed, but the abortion failed and the Russian Republic was born, for better or for worse. Able to choose between lightness and darkness, Russia was distrustful of the Light Ones as a consequence of their bungled abortion attempt and seduced by the flashier powers of darkness. The dream that the history of Russia’s transition from communism could be rewritten with a happy ending is played out in Night Watch and Day Watch. Perhaps the “chalk of fate” could take us back to a time before Yeltsin’s disastrous consolidation of power and economic reforms liquidated the bank accounts of millions of Russian citizens, that time when everyone wore ill-fitting sweaters because no one had brand-name clothes, that time before the balance tipped in favor of corruption and free-market capitalism—the film seems to suggest that the fate of the young Russian democracy could be saved.
What this salvation might look like is another question. If a return to the previous century-long stasis between light and dark is the goal (roughly corresponding to the 74 years of Soviet power and that “other” Cold War), then the answer would be a return to communism. If, however, the narrative ended with this film, and the Light Ones win in the end, then the answer might be a more complicated third way between Soviet stagnation and criminal capitalist accumulation. For the answer, we may or may not be able to look to the third film in the trilogy, Dusk Watch, purportedly being produced in the U.S. in English, featuring original characters and situations rather than a continuation of the narrative—not a strong statement about either the Russian film industry or the fate of Russian democracy.
Chock full of hilariously over-the-top product placement, Day Watch culminates in an astonishing closing credit sequence, a cheekily subversive list that substitutes contributors’ names for easily identifiable brand names on iconic billboards and neon signs. These signs are such specific and locatable Moscow landmarks that they have become stand-ins for the new Moscow, in the way that the Eiffel tower comes to stand for Paris and the Statue of Liberty for New York. Bekmambetov’s metaphor about the fate of Russia ends by literally inscribing its names over these familiar features of Moscow, rewriting the city itself as though fate of the country will follow.