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From one extreme to
Apám beájulna (Dad Would Have a Fit, 2003)
Sas has flipped back and forth between near-experimental art house works and unbearable mainstream mush. Andrew James Horton finds his latest commercial film to be a convincing popular work, despite being marketed at teenaged girls.
The career of Tamás Sas in Hungary has been as erratic as that of Gus van Sant in Hollywood, veering from art house chamber drama aimed at adults to mass market films with a generic feel. Moreover, both directors have a tendency to depict young people, with Sas paying particular attention to capturing the way street Hungarian is spoken. (His 1997 debut, Presszó / Espresso shocked Hungarians with its depictions of young female Magyars "intruding" onto the usually male-only linguistic domain of colourful swearing.) Where the two directors differ is that Sas, who started his long career in film as a director of photography and who also makes commercials, seems more committed to popular forms.
And his films are indeed popular—with Hungarian audiences. Kalózok (Pirates, 1998) was the most popular domestic film in Hungary in 1999. Critics, though, have been less impressed with his mass market works.
Sas, for example, has also been the subject of attack several times in Kinoeye. Kalózok was described in a 1999 article by myself as "pap" and being one of a group of films that "demean Hungarian cinema." The same film was also highlighted negatively in another article by myself as an example of the Central European trend to reduce women in film to passive, unthreatening objects to be fought over by men. And I still stand by these judgements.
This seeming inability (at the very least from an international perspective) to produce a satisfying popular film with some form of intellectual integrity and a level of craftmanships that can hold its head high in the multiplex among Hollywood products is not just a statement about Sas; it has also been indicative of recent Hungarian film all round. Recent editions of the annual Magyar filmszemle (Hungarian Film Week) festival have dismayed many international critics with the sheer number of films that seem to lack even the most basic criteria for being considered watchable.
In the weeks leading up to the 35th filmszemle, held earlier this year, the signs were that things might not be much better. Billboards all over Budapest were adorned with posters showing two teenaged girls, one flaunting her platinum blonde sexuality with a "come hither" look and the other, a rather bedraggled looking latter-day hippy, exuding dismay and disappointment. The design and bright colours were almost offensively cheerful and further emphasised the fact that the film advertised—Tamás Sas's latest offering, Apám beájulna (Dad Would Have a Fit / Dad Goes Nuts, 2003)—was clearly a light comedy aimed at teenaged girls' interest in snogging and shagging teenaged boys.
It's hard to think of a marketing design that could do more to put off the middle-class, middle-aged and slightly male-dominated world of film criticism.
But having a vibrant popular film culture with broad appeal within a range of audiences is a laudable pursuit (all the more so if it raises the profitability of the industry and encourages investment in film across the board), and so if Apám beájulna is to be examined it should be on its own terms and those of the audience it is trying to reach.
Sex kittens and magpies
Frustrated with her parents and bored with her dull summer job at a Lake Balaton resort Szarka (Magpie) takes off with the glamorous, Barbi in search of girl-power fuelled adventure. Barbi in particular wants to live for the moment and sells her parents' car to finance a trip to Crete, where the two, under Barbi's leadership, blow the cash on clothes and an expensive hotel. The money soon goes, and one night they are staying in the "presidential suite" at their hotel and the next day they are earning their keep by cleaning it.
Barbi has no qualms about using her body (which is indeed Barbie doll-like) to get her a better position at the hotel, while the more sexually timid Szarka is stuck with her lowly cleaning. Szarka makes her own attempt at having fun Barbi-style, but really her heart is elsewhere—Barcelona, in fact, where the boy of her dreams is waiting for her. So, off to the other side of Europe the two girls go.
However, it isn't the romance Szarka envisioned, and things go sour when her beau starts to become attracted to the sex-kitten looks of Barbi, jeopardising the two girls' friendship as much as anything. Szarka has a chance for revenge, though, when Barbi's Rome-based heart-throb falls for her (Szarka). But love isn't a game Szarka can play as lightly as her pouting friend.
Positive role models for sexual uncertainty
The story-telling in Apám beájulna cracks off at a brisk pace, with a rapid succession of flashes forward and backwards to explain Szarka's situtation. The snappy editing and playful post-production tricks (the camera, for example, swooping down to an overhead shot of Szarka from a view of Earth from outer space) are clearly influenced by the advertising world that Sas also works in and reminiscent of those used in a string of recent European hits such as Lola rennt (Run, Lola, Run, 1998), Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Amélie, 2001) and particularly the low-budget L'Auberge espagnole (Europudding, 2002).
But while the are anything but original, Sas uses his box of tricks effectively. The narratively dense opening, for example, is particularly successful in setting up the establishing details in the minimal amount of time, freeing Sas up to concentrate on the meat of the plot. The phrenetic pace and gimmicks die down as Sas shifts focus from a plot-driven narrative to one that mixes plot and character study.
Notable with respect to the film's elements of character study is the fact that it is based on a novel by 26-year-old Richárd Salinger, who also wrote and story-boarded the script. There's certainly no hint of the stodginess of literary adaptations, but the depth of characterisation has clearly survived. (Sas, it would seem, works well with literary figures, his debut, which critics and festival juries so admired was co-scripted with author and actor Gábor Németh.)
Apám beájulna, in focussing on how love can get in the way of friendship, is in many ways a remake of Kalózok with the gender roles reversed. This emphasis on the female experience is in itself refreshing, and the complaint that the males (even the mid-life crisis-ridden lech played by veteran comedian András Kern) are weak cardboard cut-outs seems churlish, if not irrelevant, given the vast number of films from central Europe (and globally) in which the reverse is true.
The film, therefore, has an element of girl empowerment to it. It is not a consciously feminist film, but it goes against the grain in Hungarian cinema by putting female sexuality centre-stage without falling into the trap of male voyeurism. True, Barbi is visually emblematic of the teenage girl as sexual object, but the film successfully critiques her attempt to use her body for her own advantage. Besides, Barbi's principal purpose in the plot, with her artificial self-confidence, is to act as a foil for Szarka's own more measured and uncertain feelings about her sexuality. Barbi is more a cipher for an antagonistic mental state in Szarka rather than an independent character in her own right.
Unlike Kalózok, Apám beájulna comes over as a film that is free of or in opposition to gender stereotypes. To go a stage further, Sas has something interesting to say about teenage love and the search for identity. Producer Gábor Kálomista told those assembled at a press screening at the Magyar filmszemle that he hoped that the film would appeal not just to teenagers but also to parents wanting to find out how their offspring feel about love, sexuality and coming of age in the modern era. It probably will. The early box office data indicating that the film had achieved 160,000 admissions—an enormous number for the Hungarian market—in the space of just two months and with life in its theatrical run yet indicates that Kálomista's hopes are perhaps being realised.
Apám beájulna, therefore, may not be the stuff of international festival awards (even at the Magyar filmszemle it won nothing) nor of film criticism's usually arthouse-centric view of world cinema (it certainly won't be on my list of favourite films of 2004). But in the Hunagrian context, it's a valid and intelligently realised contribution to the rather patchy field of domestic popular cinema, and in Sas's career it is a minor triumph in combining two seemingly opposing tendencies in his work. The Hungarian film industry may yet get the dynamic and engaging popular cinema it deserves.
Andrew James Horton
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