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Mother, I’m Coming Home: Close-Up on Darya Zhuk's "Crystal Swan"

A Belarusian DJ schemes to achieve the American Dream in Darya Zhuk's 1990s-set debut.
Savina Petkova
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Darya Zhuk's Crystal Swan is receiving its exclusive digital premiere on MUBI, and is showing May 23 - June 22, 2020 in most countries.
Minsk, 1996: statues of Lenin have been dislocated from their urban placement to heritage museums, as well as, most surprisingly, nightclubs. Early on, Darya Zhuk’s Crystal Swan plunges its audience into an underground setting, where neon lights drench the Soviet leader’s sculpted features while youngsters sway in a trance-like state. Iconically, the early house music anthem “Move Your Body” by Marshall Jefferson flags the prodigal freedom of a whole post-1989 generation. The film itself offers a singular coming-of-age story, where a law-graduate-turned-DJ Velya’s (Alina Nasbullina) abstract dream of fleeing to the U.S. is hindered by bureaucratic complications. When unexpected circumstances lead Velya to a countryside town, she comes face to face with societal pressures, questions of adulthood (and womanhood), that need resolving before she could embark on a journey abroad. Apart from its (post)nationalistic sentiments, the film makes an existential claim: even when the end of an odyssey overlaps with its beginning back home, one never returns the same person that has left.
Crystal Swan is Zhuk’s debut feature, which she insisted on making in her motherland, Belarus, even though the director has been based in the United States for many years. Because of that, the film is self-conscious enough to transcend any preconceived notions of “Eastern-Europeanness.” A catch-all term that falsely suggests a homogeneous way of describing national cinemas, it stands in for an assemblage label of bleakness, precarity, and distrust to one’s own past. Zhuk, evidently, is set to go against the grain and probe such stereotypes, while at the same time providing young Belorusians with a determined and fiery female lead to identify with. Choreographed dynamically with tonal shifts that range from ironic to seditious, the script complements an equally balanced visual aesthetic: Carolina Costa’s cinematography frames Velya’s vivid colors and pungent attitude in a 4:3 ratio, confines that first must be respected, and then overcome.
A forged visa application leads Velya into a Kafkaesque journey to the Belorusian countryside, with the purpose of tracking down the house and telephone given on her fake document to prove her employment. Zhuk explores the comic potential of this real situation (an actual story of a friend) with empathy and social awareness, forging a narrative of progressive self-understanding. What starts out as an act of revolt on Velya’s part (running away from home, hiding from her mother and boyfriend), eventually brings her closer to her true desire. With Chicago in mind as a dream destination that fulfills her need for expressive and political freedom, she embodies the post-Soviet individual with seductive but abstract ideas of “the West” as a mythical land of promises. Paradoxically, her American dream leads her to the desolate town of Khrustal, a provincial place known for its lead glass factory (of course, for export only). Such an ironic disposition alludes to the Marxist notion of alienated labor even without explicating or pin-pointing it, as the industrialized manufacture finds the citizens producing expensive chandeliers and crystal pieces while they themselves remain destitute. Crystal Swan incorporates several documentary-style sequences of factory workers and their deafening workplace—a place symbolic of a seemingly bygone era that has transitioned smoothly in a post-socialist era with little change. As a metaphor for the state of Belarus and the longed-for future, the factory is the thematic center of the story (it’s the source of the film’s title), even though it’s tethered to the story’s periphery.
The camera keeps its pace with Velya at all times and it seems her figure is an exceptional one that seems to fit all circumstances—contrasting with the dusty streets and integrated with more kitschy apartments. Waves of color emanate from costumes and interiors alike, which makes up a meticulous, more layered representation of a post-Soviet state. —One contradiction which is also symptomatic of Eastern Europe, stylized often means authentic; in contrast, Crystal Swan was shot on location and altered very little in given flats and houses—sophisticated production design interweaves with historical verity. The Persian rugs bolted on the wall, the abundance of wallpaper patterns, crimson rotary phone, or knitted bed throws: all of these signifiers of a past that refuses to pass trap Velya’s attempts at emancipation.  
Throughout the film, Velya lies about her mother being gravely ill either to counter accusations of forsaking her homeland or to justify her own stubborn behavior. The audience knows from early on that the mother is healthy; in fact, she takes daily care of her chakras when she’s not giving children guided tours in the socialist museum. The lies present a recurring motif that gestures towards the young woman’s troubled relationship with her heritage. The motherland, rather than the mother, is ailing, and as simple as this observation may be, accounting for the authoritarian regime of first (and present) president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, it aptly demonstrates Zhuk’s nuanced approach in character-building. Avoiding further psychologizing of Velya’s past, Crystal Swan provides a deeper insight into the traumatic experience of growing up before 1989. Despite the fact that adulthood grants a presumed level of maturity,, the post-Soviet years actually presented a second coming-of-age for a whole generation grown up under the flag of socialism.
The question of autonomy is one of crucial importance and Crystal Swan falls on the intersection of political (Eastern European) and gender (feminist) self-determination. While Velya idolizes personal liberty as an American value, she is confronted with matters of duty, cloaked as humility and resilience, by ex-armyman Stepan (Ivan Mulin). However, men’s machismo and utter arrogance seemingly prevails when both Stepan (who is to be married in a couple of days) and Velya’s junkie boyfriend Alik (Yuriy Borisov) care for little more than themselves. The film weighs more on female agency in the face of patriarchal structures. Furthermore, in criticizing the negative environment against which a new generation must arise, the film anticipates a push back by the older one, as its elderly characters hold on to a patriotism clenched by the past as a virtue in itself. Nevertheless,by circling back to its beginning, Crystal Swan treats all the generational resistance and benumbed cynicism with humor and astute consideration. Darya Zhuk also makes a bold claim about fragility through framing numerous shots alongside glistening crystals and special paying attention to when they’ve been broken into smithereens. Freedom always involves a destruction of one’s decorum, however shiny it may be. 

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