Spoiler warning !!!
When the program for the 2004 Hong Kong International Film Festival came out, I made a quick comparison with the one for the Toronto International Film Festival last fall. Even without trying really hard, I was able to identify well over a dozen films that are in both. Out of these, I picked The Return to watch.
What attracts me most is the mention of the Russian landscape. In the background material on this film from both festivals, the word `affinity' is used. The HKIFF talks about the its visual imagery's `mystical intensity and sacred affinity with nature' while the TIFF refers to director Zvyagintsev's `exquisite, instinctive affinity for the contours and shifting hues, the murmurs and silences of the northern lakes and forests.' My personal affinity goes back to the early seventies, a stunningly breathtaking documentary called `North of Superior', debuted on the occasion of the opening of the IMAX-type Cinesphere in Ontario Place at the harbour front of Toronto.
Now to the film. After an absence of 12 years, a father, purportedly a pilot, returns unannounced to his family. The two teenage boys, whose normal life does not include a father, are at a bit of a loss how to handle the situation. With only their mother's word that this stranger is indeed their father, they look up from the attic an old family photo, to confirm to themselves that it is indeed so. Still a little bemused, the duo cannot hide their delight when they are brought to understand that this man, their father, that is, is going to take them on a camping trip up north.
The rest of the film is about this journey (both on land and over water) which is not exactly as mystical as Captain Bejamin L. Willard's up a river in Vietnam (Apocalypse Now). While we are not given a great deal of information about the father (some say it's deliberately withheld, with which I do not necessarily agree), there is nothing wrong with assuming that due to security reasons (he may well be a military pilot), he simply has not been allowed to communicate normally with his family. What he is now trying to do is to take advantage of this window, regardless of how it becomes available, to do what fathers are supposed to do, to impart upon his children things that will be helpful in their development and maturing. This is as simple and natural as breathing and every father who has sons understand that. The father, despite some of his seemingly inexplicable action, is really the most consistent and predictable character. When he answers the boys' question by saying that it's their mother's idea that he should spend some time with them, the boys press him by asking if this is what he wants too. I think he does not directly answer the question but it is obvious that he wants to, and he wants them to know that he wants to.
More interesting is the oscillation of force (for want of a better word) between the two sons. Andrey (Vladimir Garin), the older son, is appeasing right from the very beginning, showing no sign of resentment of his father who has never been part of his life, until this sudden intrusion. It's the younger son Ivan (played by Ivan Dobronravov, who bears an uncanny resemblance of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense) who is the rebel struggling between denial and acceptance of this man claiming to be the father he must have secretly longed for. This balance is maintained until the traumatic event at the end, when Andrey develops, or matures, into the leadership role, whether he likes it or not. His anger dissipated, Ivan now looks towards his older brother as the father figure.
The film ends by showing the audience some of the photographs (black and white) we saw the boys took during the trip, picture that flows with jubilation. While the father does not appear in any of the pictures, it is quite obvious that he took the ones in which the happy faces of both boys appear. Looking at the photos, one would not have guessed the undercurrent that shadowed the trip, still less its abrupt, tragic conclusion. The father does appear in the last picture which, however, is not from this trip, but rather from 12 years ago, showing him carrying infant Ivan in his arms.
Even more brilliantly used are another two photographs, seen through the eyes of the boys this time. I mentioned the first one, which the boys look up in the attic to confirm that this man is indeed their father. The second one they find at the end of the film, tucked away in the sunshade of their father's car. This photo is almost exactly like the first one, except for one thing: it shows only the mother and the two boys, without the father.
The Return is a film so rich in imagery and symbolism that I am reluctant to do anything here other than reporting what the screen and soundtrack show. Each viewer will get a great deal of satisfaction out of devising his/her own unique interpretation.
Returning to the landscape, not even perfectly flawless cinematography can come close to substituting the experience of standing on the northern shore of Lake Superior, looking south into its awe-inspiring splendour, with the rugged, expansive, northern landscape behind you. It stays with you for the rest of your life.
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