Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Day Watch – director’s cut – review

Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Release Date: 2007

Contains spoilers

I gave a first impression of this movie when I saw it at the cinema and the first thing to say is that the film presented on DVD is not the theatrical release. For some reason the UK DVD release is a director’s cut and what this means is that, whilst it is watchable in Russian or English dub, the subtitles are not the groovy built in subtitles. This is a shame, but does not lower the general appreciation of the film, however I do not understand why a double disc with both versions could not have been released. There is some content difference as well. Some scenes I just do not remember are now in the film and the précis of the story from the first film is curtailed to the point of being none existent.

This does mean that a working knowledge of the first film is preferable (and indeed desirable as I shall explain later) but I think a viewer with any intelligence will quickly grasp what is going on even if they haven’t seen the first film. The films are loosely based on three books The Night Watch, The Day Watch and The Twilight Watch. Whilst set pieces are pulled from varying novels in the series and many of the characters appear in both the literary and cinematic versions, the films are not the books and the overall story is very different. Book purists beware, though in my opinion both mediums tell fantastic stories, each worthwhile in their own right.

The film begins with an astounding set piece, back in time, as the warrior Tamerlain attempts to take the Chalk of Fate – an artefact that allows fate to be changed by writing the change with the chalk – from an impenetrable fortress. Rather than follow the maze of alleys that make up the fortress, Tamerlain goes through the walls in an impressive set of visual effects. Eventually he finds the chalk and we see its power and, whilst we do not fully know it at this point, its limitations.

In modern day Moscow the races of supernatural beings, collectively known as the Others, live among us. The Others are split into two camps Dark and Light and there is a truce between the two factions. The Light Others have the Night Watch policing the Dark and the Dark Others have the Day Watch policing the Light (incidentally the DVD blurb completely cocks up the distinction between the watches). Above them both is the inquisition, ensuring that both Dark and Light obey the Truce. It is a web of political intrigue, plots and counter plots. In this world our main character is Anton (Konstantin Khabensky), a Night Watch agent whose son, Yegor (Dmitry Martynov), is a Great Other gone over to the Dark and whose prospective love, Svetlana (Mariya Poroshina), is a Great Other sworn to the Light.

There is a shadowy other world in the film known as the Gloom. This is different to the books where it is called the Twilight. The main difference between the books and the films is to do with the levels depicted. In the films all Others can enter the first level of the Gloom, where they are faced with a bleached and generally lifeless world, filled with garbage and swarming with mosquitoes.

There is a second level of the Gloom in the films, whereas there are several levels of Twilight in the books. Only a Great Other can really travel to the second level of Gloom and this is a place of vibrant colours, with rushing images of people and nightmarish figures screaming. It is a beautifully shot and realised vision and the lowering of the number of levels is no detraction from book to film.

The film is a joy of intrigue and I really do not wish to spoil the film by revealing any of the plot. However, I do wish to look at the vampiric activity within the film.

The vampires are Dark Others, but really we get two types – though only one is the traditional vampire. Anton’s neighbours are Kostya (Aleksei Chadov) and his father (Vakeri Zolotukhin). They are vampires, his father’s job being a butcher. We never really see fangs in this but we do notice that the father wears silver teeth caps, perhaps hiding the fangs from public view.

The pair feature in this in a much more intensive way then in the first movie and we discover that Kostya has, unbeknown to himself, received his first hunting licence – something his father does not want him to have. He was born human and his father bit and turned him as he was ill to the point of dying. However he wishes his son to stay as human as possible.

There was a vampire girl in the first film, Larissa (Anna Dubrovskaya), who makes an appearance in cameo in this, styling Yegor’s hair. She carries the scars inflicted by Anton from the first film but, more interestingly, we see that she has no reflection. This is in contrast to what we discovered in the first film, that a vampire in the Gloom can be spotted in a mirror. So, in Gloom they show in a real world mirror but in our world they cast no reflection.

The other type of vampire we see is not a traditional one but a trait of a Dark Other, in fact Yegor. He has taken to stabbing mortals with a pin and then sucking the life from them through it and, as a result, murdering them. He is actually drinking their lifeforce and we can see the result of this later in the film as a victim ages during the process.

The actual mechanics of this are interesting. The pin is hollow – blood wells to the end – but he does not physically suck the blood through. He sucks at a straw, some distance from the victim, drinking a juice carton. It is a form of sympathetic magic that allows him to steal the life energy. It is interesting that his eyes turn a ghastly white during the process.

The film is difficult to fault. It is complex, but a modicum of intelligence coupled with an ability to concentrate will see you through without a problem. There are some massive, effects driven set pieces but these add to the film, rather than take away from it – constructing a visually stunning framework around the proceedings. The acting is first rate and the soundtrack fairly rocks along in a most appropriate manner.

I said at the head that it is desirable to be familiar with the first film. This is because the two films truly are halves of one whole. The films fit cyclically together in a most satisfying way. What was also astounding was that the very Russian feel of the film (and it is clearly a Russian movie both in atmosphere and attitude) gives way at the end to an almost French cinema feel – true though I cannot explain anymore without giving the ending away.

A truly remarkable film, 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

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