English Title: ASSA

Original Title: ASSA

Country of Origin: Soviet Union

Studio: Mosfilm

Director: Sergei Solov'ev

Screenplay: Sergei Livnev, Sergei Solov'ev

Cinematographer: Pavel Lebeshev

Art Director: Marksen Gaukhman-Sverdlov

Editor: Vera Kruglova

Runtime: 153 minutes

Genre: Melodrama

Language: Russian

Starring/Cast: Aleksandr Bashirov, Sergei Bugaev, Tatiana Denisova, Stanislav Govorukhin, Boris Grebenshchikov, Viktor Tsoi

Year: 1987

Volume: Russian

Other Information:
ASSA is a nonsense word suggested by the rock musicians starring in the film.
ASSA is the first film in the trilogy, followed by Black Rose is a Symbol of Sorrow, Red Rose is a Symbol of Love (Chernaia roza – emblema pechali, krasnaia roza – emblema liubvi, 1989), and House Under the Starry Skies (Dom pod zvezdnym nebom, 1991). Solov’ev released a sequel to ASSA in April 2009, called 2 ASSA 2 or the Second Death of Anna Karenina (2 ASSA 2 ili vtoraia smert’ Anny Kareninoi). The film is a part of a diptych with Solov’ev's Anna Karenina.

The film is set in the resort town of Yalta in winter. A young woman, Alika, comes to town to meet with her older lover, a mobster named Krymov. While he is delayed, she meets young rock-musician, Bananan, who plays in the restaurant with his rock band. Alika reunites with Krymov, but her friendship with Bananan grows and she begins to spend more time with him, while Krymov is busy plotting the theft of an antique violin. Krymov and his accomplices are secretly watched and investigated by the police. Krymov becomes suspicious and jealous of the relationship between Alika and Bananan. At first he warns Bananan, then tries to bribe him to leave the town. When the young man refuses, Krymov murders him. Alika in turn shoots Krymov when she finds out about Bananan’s death.

ASSA is considered one of the most important films of the perestroika period. ASSA was the first Soviet film to feature Russian underground rock music. In 1988 this meant public recognition for underground art and public acceptance of the youth subculture as an agent of change. The young generation was an important subject in perestroika cinema that produced a corpus of youth-oriented films that described it either as a lost generation (Little Vera, Pichul, 1989) or as the generation of hope and change (Is it Easy to be Young?, Podnieks, 1987). ASSA’s reception made it a cult film among young people in the late 1980s. The screenings were accompanied by an ‘art rock parade’ – live concerts of banned rock groups, exhibits of contemporary underground artists and fashion designers. ASSA became the embodiment of the spirit of change, drawing unprecedented numbers of viewers. It captured the hopes and aspirations of the late perestroika era, which produced a sense of individual and public empowerment, when a free society seemed to be within reach and the old taboos could be done away with overnight. This message is especially evident in the end of the film, when Viktor Tsoi, leader of the group Kino, sings ‘We Wait for Change’ (My zhdem peremen), and the scene that starts as a rehearsal at the restaurant turns into a concert with thousands of fans.
    However, the final song with its hard rock beat and straightforward rebellious message contrasts with the tone that ASSA sets. ASSA mostly features music by Boris Grebenshchikov and Aquarium, known for subversive tongue-in-cheek texts and experimental musical forms. This choice compliments pastiche style, formal experimentation and an absurdist touch characteristic for ASSA. The film’s formal sophistication starts with art direction that fills the scenes with the strange objects that seem to come straight from a conceptual installation. Solov’ev also uses his signature techniques, such as the use of graphics and text within visual material. Bananan’s dreams are presented as film stock with bright abstract pictures painted on it, and the film is interrupted with onscreen text commentary explaining the meaning of the youth slang.
    In terms of genre, ASSA is eclectic, combining melodrama with a criminal thriller about cops and gangsters; fantasy sequences about a coup d’état against Paul I that comes to life as Krymov reads about it in a book; and a social message brought in by Russian rock. None of the genres is entirely functional: the cops and gangsters story seems not only irrelevant but is openly mocked in the end, when long onscreen text describes all the financial scams perpetrated by Krymov. Life, death and mafia power boil down to dull description in the Soviet ideolect. The heart of the film is obviously with youth subculture, whose absurd lyrics and crazy stunts are positioned as more meaningful than an elaborate heist or Mafiosi brought to justice. Russian rock has a long tradition of cultural resistance that manifested itself in the kind of absurdity and irony that Sergei Solov’ev uses in the film. However, the budding relationship between Alika and Bananan is depicted with utmost tenderness and seriousness.
    The incongruence of genres adds to the film's compartmentalized nature. The different stories exist as different worlds – a commentary on the radical changes that befell Russia with the advent of perestroika. Solov’ev’s visual and narrative techniques emphasize the divide between the old and new. The sunny southern Yalta is covered in snow and mud. The young couple go on a mountain lift and the background song tells about a golden city under the blue sky, while the camera pans and reveals the unkempt, grey city underneath. The cops, gangsters, lovers and rock musicians exist in parallel universes, and when they meet the results are either frightening – as in the gruesome death of Bananan, or grotesque – as in the final triumph of the police. The fantasy sequences about the murder of Paul I during the coup d'état suggest a parallel both to the martyred Bananan and the fading of the old generation, the death of Krymov, in the name of the future that bursts onto the scene with the end song, demanding change.

Author of this review: Volha Isakava