Color, 87 min
In Yakut/Russian with English subtitles
Director: Kostas Marsaan
Screenplay: Oleg Bogatov, Konstantin Danilov, Pavel Poluichik, Artem Zolotarev
Music: Andrei Gurianov
Editing: Konstantin Danilov
Studio: Art Doydu Film Company
Kostas Marsaan is a native Sakha film director. He studied history and political science at Yakutsk State University, and theater direction at the Moscow workshop of Alla Surikova and Vladimir Fokin. Since 2010, he has worked as a director, film editor, and screenwriter at Art Doydu Production Company, for which he directed his debut film, the mystery thriller My Killer. In 2016, the film entered the long list of the Golden Globe Awards and soon became the first Sakha film distributed across all of Russia. Kostas’s second project Ich-chi, an entry in our program, is the first Sakha independent film to have received international theatrical distribution.
2016 My Killer
Maxime Bey-Rozet — At the heart of Ich-chi, the second feature film of Sakha director Kostas Marsaan, are a series of binary oppositions: between two brothers, one who left the parental farm to move to the city, and the other who stayed behind; between earnest parents who led a modest life of manual labor, and a deceitful son who asks that they sell their lands to cover his debts; and between a physical, material world and a dreamlike spirit world, haunted by evil spirits and the memory of past crimes. Ich-chi: the quasi-palindrome title, referring to the name of the ghostly entity that assaults the main characters, signals a tale of generational, fraternal, and ultimately spiritual conflicts.
Indeed, the narrative of Ich-chi explicitly pits past against present, tradition and modernity. Aysen, a taciturn young man, lives with his parents on a farm in Yakutia. When his older brother, Timir, comes to visit with his wife and their son, relationships tense up: Timir is in debt to dangerous people from “the city” and immediately needs financial help. When night comes, ghosts begin manifesting in the physical world, spatial and logical continuities evaporate, and dream and reality become indistinguishable, with terrible consequences.
It is difficult not to see in Ich-chi’s dual conflicts an expression of anxieties about the erasure of the past. Like most ghost stories—and Marsaan’s meticulous direction constantly shows that he is very familiar with the codes of the genre—the film tells the tale of a terrible past on the brink of forgetfulness: in this case, the execution of a deformed young woman who had been possessed by a local spirit, many years ago. The legend is local, as is much of the film itself: Ich-chi was directed by a native Sakha filmmaker, produced by a Sakha film company, and takes place in the Republic of Sakha. The character of Timir, who comes from “the city,” wears modern clothing and is married to a white woman who is lost without an internet connection, is in many ways an outsider to what is coded as “local” in the film. But Timir is not a flattering ambassador of city life. A weaselly, selfish, and arrogant man in stark contrast to the quiet robustness of his younger brother, Timir has returned to his roots only with the intent of deceiving his parents into selling their land. At stakes in this transaction is the sacrifice of rural tradition to safeguard a cannibalistic modernity that preys on its roots for the sake of its own self-preservation.
There is room, then, to view the ghostly manifestations as a positive force in spite of the destruction they cause—after all, the deformed young woman of the local legend lived hidden from the rest of the world, was treated like an animal, and finally was animated with power and agency through Ich-chi. The violent resurgence of the past, within the context of the family dilemma at the center of the plot, is neither an evil presence to be purged, nor an unresolved past in need of resolution. Rather, it signals the enduring resilience of local identity and spiritual life. The ending of the film, with its strong undertones of mysticism and its peaceful, almost campy epilogue, seems to suggest that local traditions will persevere, for the better.
It is possible that Ich-chi is ultimately content with its somewhat simple binarisms. Almost 50 years earlier and with a completely different context in mind, American film critic Robin Wood argued that the monsters of (American) horror films enacted a “return of the repressed”—the violent yet ultimately positive eruption of forces bourgeois society buried away. Should we consider Ich-chi to be a part of this tradition? Could the spirit at the center of the narrative stand for repressed local traditions, too monstrous to coexist with modernity? In spite of the narrative elements that make facile dialectic readings tempting, Ich-chi somehow remains ambiguous, even confusing at times. Frequent breaks in narrative, spatial and temporal continuities make Ich-chi difficult to pin down and decipher. It is, in other words, a messy film, which was perhaps the best way to represent the primordial chaos after which Ich-chi is named.