Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Flower Buds (orig. Poupata) [2011]

Unrated (would be R)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CSFD listing - [CZ, ENG trans]

Flower Buds (orig. Poupata) [IMDb][CSFD, Eng trans] is an award winning Czech film (w. Eng subtitles) written and directed by Zdeněk Jiráský [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans] which played recently at the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival (Oct. 11-25, 2012).  Back in the Czech Republic, it won 4 Czech Lions [Eng Trans] (the nation's equivalent to the Oscars) including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actor in a Leading Role.  At the Chicago Int'l Film Festival it won the Silver (2nd Place) in the New Director Competition.

What's it about?  Well the film's really a devastating indictment of the state of the family in Czech society today.  Every single character in the story except for 2 Vietnamese immigrants (more on the two below) is portrayed as being a real mess.  Yet as hard as it is for someone like me (of Czech descent still very much in contact relatives and "the old country") to watch a film like this, it is a testament to the cultural critical, indeed prophetic role that the artistic community _can play_ in a society.  When there is a problem in society, it is often the artistic community that finds itself calling attention to it and often to the initial upset of the society in general.  No one likes to see/hear bad news.  Yet how can problems be confronted (or one can live honestly) unless they are faced? 

The American observer may find it utterly surprising that in contemporary Czech society the _artistic community_ has been consistently challenging society to recover at least a basic sense of personal morality including (and perhaps _especially_) a basic sense of sexual morality.  Why?  Because the current state of personal morality in the Czech Republic (and throughout much of Europe and especially in post-Communist lands) has been appalling.  Thus then this film, set in December (in the days/weeks leading up to and following Christmas) in a small industrial city (the towns of Kladno or Zlín come to mind) in the contemporary Czech Republic.

The father of the family in the film, Jarda (played by Vladimír Javorský [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans], begins the story working as a railway switch operator outside a large industrial plant.  However, he spends much of his time (alone) sitting in his booth, building model cars, boats, etc out of matches (basically a "hard" but certainly _not_ particularly meaningful activity...).   He also has a massive gambling addiction spending much of his time in the evenings in the local bar feeding money that he no longer has (he borrows from the bar owner) into slot machines.

Jarda's wife, Kamila (played by Malgorzata Pikus [IMDb][CSFD, Eng Trans]) works as a street cleaner by day and is part of a local synchronized gymnastics group calling itself "Poupata" or "Flower Buds" (from which the film takes its name).  The group represents a vestige of past "glory" when such groups would be organized to come together both first under the pan-Slavic nationalistic Sokol movement and later during the Communist era by the government sanctioned the Spartakiad movement to enormous regional even national gatherings where all these little groups would "exercise together" performing all kinds of often spectacular stadium-sized synchronized feats.  In this film, however, all that we see is a group of 30-40 women calling themselves "The Flowerbuds" meeting together to practice at a local and rather rickety/delapitated gym.  And how do they finance their activities?  Well, the 30-40 local women (many like Kamila in their 40s and even 50s) shoot an annual erotic calendar...

Their son Honza (meaning "Johnny" played by Miroslav Pánek [IMDb]) who looks like a student or a recently graduated student, in any case unemployed and not particularly looking for work, makes some extra cash by growing marijuana hydroponically with a couple of his buddies in a tarp covered chamber hidden under a viaduct somewhere.  Their late teenage daughter Agata (played by Marika Soposká [IMDb] [CSFD, Eng Trans]) also possibly graduated but also certainly unemployed and also not particularly looking for work finds herself pregnant presumably by one of Honza's friends but it becomes clear as the story goes on that she's not entirely sure by whom ... And tragically it turns out that Agata is actually "the brains" and even arguably _the conscience_ of the family..

So who the heck among all these people is actually working?  Kamila (the mother) is, and then there are the two Vietnamese immigrants that I mentioned above and promised to return to here.  Their names are Hue (played by Thi Min Ngygnen [CSFD, Eng Trans]) and her husband Long (played by Kim Son Ngygnen) and they live on the floor below the Czech family.

What the heck would Hue and Long be doing in the Czech Republic to begin with?  Well, there is actually a sizable Vietnamese minority living in the Czech Republic as a consequence of the Vietnam War.  Communist Czechoslovakia actually provided a fair amount of the weapons to the Communist combatants in the war presumably in good part to give the Soviet Union deniability "We're not providing weapons to the Vietcong, the Czechs and Slovaks are..."  The U.S./the West did similar things as well.  Western backed insurgencies during the Cold War tended to use "Belgian," "Israeli" or even "South African" weapons.  Anyway, the North Vietnamese had no way to pay for the weapons that they received other than ... sending their own people to places like Communist Czechoslovakia to work Vietnam's debt off.   After the fall of Communism, these Vietnamese de facto indentured servants had no place to go.  So a large number (most?) of them stayed.  An excellent article regarding relations between Communist Era Czechoslovakia / the post-Communist Era Czech Republic and Vietnam can be found here [Cz-Orig][Eng-trans].

Now in a place like the Czech-lands where ethnicity pretty much defines national identity, one would expect racism to abound.  Ask a Gypsy in the C.R. and he/she will _definitely_ tell you that it does.  However, as in the States, the Vietnamese have proven _so hardworking_ that the Vietnamese have earned near universal respect of the Czech populace.  Yes, one does hear ethnic slurs in reference to the Vietnamese in the Czech Republic, the principal one being "Rákosníci" which means "straw heads" (or more literally "straw people") for the characteristic pointed straw hats that Vietnamese peasants were known to wear back in Vietnam.  BUT when year after year the children of Vietnamese immigrants seem to outscore Czech children in pretty much every category of learning including Czech language/history ;-), the Czechs who do generally consider themselves a good-natured lot and being a small country always having sympathy for the underdog find themselves in admiration of this surprising Vietnamese minority among them.  (I know this from my own relatives who live in the Czech Republic... who often would shake their heads in disbelief when trying to explain the historical accident of why Vietnamese immigrants live among them, but have almost universal praise for their hard work, honesty and achievement).

So it does not surprise me greatly to see a Czech film about contemporary life in the Czech Republic where arguably the only "good people" in the entire film are the Vietnamese (even as the Vietnamese immigrants admit that they hate the snow ... ;-).

This then is the setup of the film.  Much of course happens.  It certainly does not portray contemporary life in the Czech Republic particularly kindly.  But then the film is clearly intended to serve as a mirror to the Czech people of today with some pointed questions as to why contemporary life in the C.R. seems so often to be so morally bankrupt/hopeless.   And as one in my profession I can't help but find that Confession to be laudable.  After all, there's the saying I've learned here in the United States: "The first step out of a hole is to stop digging." 

So good job director Zdenku and the rest of your crew / cast.  Good job! And let's all hope that the movie makes a positive impact both in the C.R. and beyond.

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