In this article, Yus reflects on how Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole brings a simple proposal: when placed in the worst possible situation, the best among us will come out.
This is the kind of adage that some of my favorite movies have in common, and Beanpole made me think that it could be one of them at first. In Beanpole, characters try to survive in a world so evil that they are forced to put on the mantle of evil themselves, until its weight slowly crushes them. Yet beneath the subdued emotion and repressed vulnerability of the characters, lies an overwhelming grief and anger at a world so unjust that gives the movie a truly visceral and near cathartic quality.
There are no villains in Beanpole. Every character, no matter how despicable, has tried their best to be a good person or to perform good deeds. However, in Director Kantemir Balagov’s tribute to post-WWII Soviet Union, that kind of notion is simply a make believe. The catalyst of the movie, which involves the virginal beauty Iya and her adorable son, Pashka, is one of the most horrifying acts ever committed on film, and yet so innocent at the same time.
The subplot involving Stepan, a Red Army sniper who was paralyzed from his feet all the way up to his neck, was delivered in a rather dry and unsentimental manner, but the wound it opened was poignant and long lasting. The midpoint climax, which involves two women and a man on a bed together, is as painful to watch as any torture scenes by Park Chan-wook or Kim Jee-woon, but only because I had grown to care for every single one of them and did not want to see them suffer.
With that said, I think the movie began to take a wrong turn in its second half, most of which revolve around the romance (or lack thereof) between Masha and Sasha and the cliched subplot involving the latter’s wealthy family. Not only does this subplot feel unnecessary and took a lot of screen time away from the other central characters or the characters in the hospital (the heart and soul of the film), but it also feels like such a misstep for Balagov to place the big reveal of the film, that of Masha’s traumatizing past, in such a cold setting and among characters that audiences have no emotional investment in. I think that it would have been more effective if the kind of exchange that took place there happened instead between Masha and other characters like Dr. Nikolai, who quietly shared a similar wound.
Due to the misdirection in the second half, the conclusion of Beanpole seems emotionally confused, thematically muddled, and ultimately dragging for me. However, Kantemir Balagov still did an exceptional job with his second feature outing, displaying artistic maturity that far exceeds his still youthful age, just like Xavier Dolan when he did Mommy in the 2010s. He stands at the frontline of the most interesting young director to watch for me, and I’m certainly looking forward to his next film, whatever it may be.
Yusgunawan Marto, Jakarta Cinema Club
Yusgunawan is a Director/Cinematographer and senior writer at Jakarta Cinema Club