Assa starts with a bang: a sequence of spellbinding opening credits in lurid pink playing over footage of two drummers, skinny youths in tatty clothes and dirty blond hair. It ends with a bang, too. Viktor Tsoi, legendary frontman of Russian rock band Kino, strides onto the screen to sing his famous anthem ‘Peremen!’ – ‘Change!’. Tsoi’s demand for change is raw and desperate. His is the voice of the new Russia, or rather, what the new Russia could become, weren’t it hijacked by mafia bosses and dangerous criminals.
The entire writhing labyrinth of the film, shown at Regent Street Cinema as part of Kino Klassika’s season on Soviet youth culture, appears concerned with the question of what the country’s going to become after Perestroika. There are two Russias here, each vying for control under the new social order. Radical dreamers, musicians and artists want the drab bureaucratic world of the Soviet Union to turn into a land of beauty and opportunity. This vision’s threatened by the activities of a murky criminal underbelly and its brutal, murderous characters.
In Assa, these artists are represented by the oddly named Bananan, a musician and poet from Yalta. He meets Alika, a young woman, at the train station on a stormy night and brings her to lodge for a night at his mother’s house. Bananan falls so madly in love with Alika that he makes an earring from a photo of the two of them and wears it around town. When he refuses to take it off for a policeman, he’s put in jail where he gets beaten up by a prisoner who takes offence at this gender-bending defiance of societal norms. Bananan doesn’t bat an eyelid at any of this. He’s only mildly surprised that someone would be willing to go so far to limit someone’s freedom.
The stoic, love-stricken Bananan, however, is no match for Krymov, Alika’s much older boyfriend – Bananan jokingly calls him ‘Papik’ or ‘little daddy’. Krymov isn’t too happy with these jibes at his balding head and sagging belly so he starts wearing tight-fitting band t-shirts in the hotel room and goes on a strenuous exercise regime, swimming laps in hotel swimming pools and playing squash in short shorts and a bandana. But there’s more to Krymov than meets the eye. Although Alika doesn’t know it, he’s a mobster, moving around the wintry city blackmailing old friends and arranging various murders. In one of the best scenes in the film, Krymov wakes Bananan up for an early morning swim in the icy Black Sea. There’s a sense of creeping violence as they swim out into the silent, foggy bay until the shore’s out of sight and Bananan’s about to sink into the ocean. He survives but the exhaustion’s getting to him; it’s a fight to the death between young and old, corrupt and innocent.
The love-triangle connects multiple storylines which serve as backdrop to a great soundtrack of underground music, mostly by cult soviet band Aquarium. Some of the plots barely make sense and others have dated badly. But as with almost everything in Assa, there’s an extravagance to the stories and the filming that makes them ultimately attractive. The confusion generated by these interweaving plots is also part of the film’s success. The feeling of not knowing what’s really happening mirrors the reality of Perestroika; the fact that the criminals have no apparent endgame in Yalta – they’re just wreaking havoc around town – builds up a sense of helplessness in the face of a violent unknown.
Assa has fantastic, restrained cinematography, transforming the resort city of Yalta in Crimea into a gloomy place with empty recreational spaces and a distinctive out-of-season hollowness. The cinematography’s admittedly at odds with other slightly more crazed aspects of the production, but the visual representation of the crumbling USSR only adds to a film that more than anything’s asking for change, knowing it’s unlikely to happen.