Positioned somewhere between the dank environs of Tarkovsky and Michael Haneke and the torture cinema of Eli Roth and his "Splat Pack" brethren, this based-on-real-events political allegory-cum-horror story of 1984 USSR, replete with Huxley's squat gray buildings and a properly proportional festooning of decaying landscapes and milky omnipresent clouds, Aleksei Balabanov's Cargo 200 is at heart, an anti-communist era diatribe, showing with a matter-of-fact realism the ugly corrupt nightmare world that was the Soviet Union (Balabanov said in a 2007 Wall Street Journal interview, "I show what filth we live in. Society was sick from 1917 onwards.") but can also feel right at home, thanks to its severing second half, as some sort of Soviet Chainsaw Massacre.
Not to give away to much of the plot - the gradual build-up to the terrifying final act is part of the fun (though fun is hardly the appropriate word when describing this bleak and harrowing film) - let us just say Cargo 200 is the interconnected stories of several Soviet citizens - an atheist professor, a cult-leaning bootlegger, an enterprising and quite cocksure young capitalist dressed in instigatory CCCP tee shirt, a corrupt (and quite insane) police official and the requisite horror story scantily clad (at least eventually) teenage virgin - in small town Russia in the wake of the Soviet/Afghan war and their disparate views on politics and society. At least that is what the first half of the film is, the second half is another thing altogether, falling into a disturbing world of rape, murder and necrophilia - sometimes all three at once. And, to make things even more uncomfortable, as desolate as anything coming out of the Romanian Black Wave with that nation's iron-curtained anti-sentimentality, Cargo 200 also manages, inexplicably enough, to play out as black comedy, with much of its laughter held in nervously stilted inner chuckle.
Disallowing any sort of cathartic denouement, or at least teasing us with such only to pull the rug out at the moment just before, we watch as society, already rotted to the bureaucratic and spiritual core, falls deeper and deeper into an abyss that is also the allegory for not just a corrupt aging Communist system in wintry decay, but for most of Western society as a whole. There is a scene midway through this film of coffins being taken off one side of a military plane (the "cargo 200" of the title) while fresh-faced new soldiers march on to the other, like a tragic cartoon factory cycle. This is a world where the weak are preyed upon and never saved, and though the forces of evil may eventually fail at times, the more conniving forces of indifference and injustice are ultimately triumphant. Though lacking in any real originality save for its odd juxtaposition of genres (the dark, dank Eastern Bloc thriller has been done to death, but at least here there is a twist - and that is what makes the film) Cargo 200, with its strange melange of sociopolitical allegory and black comedy B-terror may be a warning of what we might become one day. Or have we already become it? [01/06/09]