If Robert Bresson directed an episode of "The Wire," it might look something like sad world of drug-fueled anger and broken dreams that dominate first-time director Ruslan Pak's "Hanaan." The Uzbeki filmmaker patiently studies one man's desire to escape his diaspora and find a utopian ideal that constantly eludes him. Shot with a palpably gritty, stripped down look, "Hanaan" thoughtfully explores the nature of its protagonist's dream, bringing striking clarity to his vanity. Despite the supreme downer of a message, Pak's story is elevated by the peace it makes with an indifferent reality.
Pak stars as Stas, a twentysomething Korean-Uzbek descendent of Koreans deported from their homeland three generations earlier. In a short prologue, he recounts his family history as a fairy tale to help a younger relative fall asleep, then stares down at two lines of coke. "Why is your fairy tale so sad?" asks the friend who supplies him with the stuff. "It's not a fairy tale," Stas replies adamantly, explaining that the history of his ancestors' exile gives him the desire to escape Uzbekistan and find the proverbial "land of milk and honey" referenced in the movie's title. Stas tacks on a stipulation: His "Hanaan" does not have to be Korea, although he expresses no other possibility. Although he never again references his abstract need to escape, it becomes the thematic backbone for everything that comes next.
In the following scenes, Pak wastes his days with a drab job at a local garage made interesting by frequent visits from his friends. His trio of companions--Shin, Kasoy and Said--party each night away, but their relatively stable lives take an immediate stumble when they abruptly decide to try heroin. Jacked up and hot-headed, Kasoy decides to go on a revenge-fueled mission to strike out against the neighborhood gangsters responsible for injuring his brother in some undefined dispute. Blind to reason, Kasoy becomes careless, and the incident ends in his death. Then Stas' real tribulations begin.
Six years later, still haunted by demons of the past, each remaining member of the group has found a different form of catharsis: Shin has moved to Korea. Said has become a thieving junkie. Only Stas has found a less precise solution, having inherited Kasoy's career ambition and become a detective still hoping to bring his friend's murderer to justice. Going undercover in a mission of his own making, Stas infiltrates the Uzbeki underworld in a tense attempt to set things right. Instead, he discovers a hopeless chain of dependency that extends beyond the corruption of the drug industry and into the halls of the police station.
Pak's frequent use of close-ups allow for Stas' moral struggles and flagging sense of purpose to become an internal process. Nearly every scene implies a descent into chaos (even the only hint of humor, when Stas dozes off during a stakeout and accidentally fire his gun into the hole of his car, underscores this point). The character finds himself stuck in an endless cycle of dependency that involves both drug usage and an immutable social order. "We are a factory for imprisonment," his boss tells him, saying nothing about serving any greater good.
Although spread across several years, "Hanaan" contains very few major developments. Sticking close to Stas' dramatic ups and downs, the movie reflects his expectation of a directionality to life that never fully comes around until he abruptly decides to take action. And even then the results are mixed.
Intentionally slow and sometimes unfocused, "Hanaan" occasionally feels as aimless as Stas' outlook, but the final scenes develop increasing power. A stand-out sequence involving heroin withdrawal brings Stas' overarching goal into sudden, visceral focus. Gazing off into the horizon, surrounded by the stillness of nature and searching for his promised land, he sees only distant mountains. The implication is clear: No matter how hard he searches, the journey will always continue.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Shot on the cheap and not exactly concerned with a commercial topic, "Hanaan" is no easy sell. However, it should garner international acclaim on the festival circuit (it plays at the Toronto International Film Festival next month) and land Pak on a list of new talent worth keeping tabs on.