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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
The Cuckoo (2002)

"Four years without a man, and then two at once."
- Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso)

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: December 01, 2003

Stars: Anni-Kristiina Juuso, Viktor Bychkov, Ville Haapasalo
Director: Alexander Rogozhkin

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and violence
Run Time: 01h:43m:13s
Release Date: December 02, 2003
UPC: 043396002111
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-A-A- C+

DVD Review

When we watch a foreign film, subtitles act as our personal interpreter, deciphering the on-screen gibberish. We rely on them totally and take them utterly for granted. A movie like The Cuckoo, however, earns renewed appreciation for this age-old cinematic device. Subtitles surely would have helped the three main characters in Alexander Rogozhkin's intriguing Russian film, but such a crutch also would have ruined the premise. For the most fascinating part of The Cuckoo is witnessing the interaction of three people confined to close quarters who speak three different languages, and how they manage to form intimate relationships without the benefit of a translator. The development of this emotional détente is often involving, yet the film's languorous pace and lightweight story ultimately causes interest to wane.

Set in remote, frigid Lapland (northern Scandinavia on the Russian border) in 1944, just days before the withdrawal of Finland from World War II, The Cuckoo chronicles the strange bond between two condemned men and the woman who saves them. Veikko (Ville Haapasalo) is a Finnish sniper (or a "cuckoo," according to Russian slang) who's chained to a rock and left for dead after his fellow soldiers brand him a coward. Ivan (Viktor Bychkov), a disgraced Russian captain, is being transported to his court martial for unspecified "anti-Soviet" offenses. While en route, an air attack severely wounds Ivan and kills his escorts, but a benevolent Lapp woman named Anni (Anni-Kristiina Juuso) happens upon Ivan and transports him to her primitive farm to nurse him back to health. Meanwhile, Veikko frees himself and secretly follows Anni to her home, where she removes the remnants of his leg chain, then provides shelter and food.

We soon learn Veikko isn't a coward at all. Disgusted by the futility of war and its senseless violence, he proclaims his freedom from the army and intention to return home. Ivan, who can't understand Veikko's language, can't see past his uniform either, and views Veikko as nothing more than an enemy of the Soviet regime who must be eliminated. Yet to Anni, such labels don't apply. She regards both soldiers as mere mortal men, and strives to build a relationship with them on that rudimentary level. Still, Ivan harbors deep feelings of resentment toward Veikko, despite the Finn's efforts to befriend him—emotions that intensify when the widowed Anni chooses Veikko to satisfy her sexual needs.

The struggle for common ground among the triumvirate is often amusing, but a sobering anti-war sentiment percolates beneath the surface. Both men try, but can't entirely submerge their political beliefs, even when far removed from the epicenter of conflict. Anni exercises domestic diplomacy, but she can only accomplish so much. The men, like the countries from which they hail, are as stubborn as mules.

The Cuckoo employs the tranquil, rugged Lapp wilderness to great advantage, as it shows how war and violence infringe on the most pastoral settings, and how global battles can be reduced to a scuffle between two men in a deserted snowfield. Through minimal use of dialogue, Rogozhkin makes the landscape an additional character, one that heals and renews the spirit. His images are often striking, but at times the Russian director seems too enamored of his own style, sacrificing narrative thrust for visual indulgence. Maybe the leisurely pace is intentional, as it dulls the urgency and tension that's such an integral part of "normal" war, but some minor tightening would have produced a more potent, affecting story.

The three actors handle their roles well, believably yet subtly transmitting their respective viewpoints. The lack of dialogue requires a stronger emphasis on nuances and physical expression, and the trio delivers nicely in that regard. Sometimes viewers can become bored with such a limited character canvas, but these performers are always interesting to watch. The story, however, is another matter. Thin and fragile, it doesn't engage the way it should, and doesn't warrant such a drawn-out treatment. The first half hour could have been cut in half without compromising mood, plot, or character development.

That said, The Cuckoo proves that, even in wartime, men are more than the uniforms they wear, and the conflicts for which we fight are often as tenuous as the relationships in our own lives. Rogozhkin may take longer than necessary to make these points, but he does so with quiet grace and a keen eye.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Columbia presents an often stunning anamorphic widescreen transfer, which beautifully renders the barren Lapp terrain. Excellent clarity and shadow detail, good contrast, and natural fleshtones enhance the presentation. Colors are slightly muted, which properly conveys the bleak winter setting, and only a few specks and marks intrude.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital
Russian, Finnish, Lappno

Audio Transfer Review: I've never experienced a Russian, Finnish, and Lapp DD 5.1 mix, but there's always a first for everything. The three languages represent the tongues of the various characters, although I was hard pressed to notice much difference between them. (A linguist I am not!) The track, however, is well balanced, with wonderfully subtle surround effects that smoothly envelop the viewer. Gentle breezes, cooing birds, and distant gunfire softly play across the rear channels, adding atmosphere and depth to the story. Dialogue is clear and no distortion could be detected.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Man Without a Past, Masked and Anonymous, Respiro
1 Documentaries
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Aside from a few trailers, the sole extra is an average yet well-produced "making-of" documentary that also provides welcome insights into the nuts and bolts of the Russian film industry. Liberally sprinkled with film clips, the 24-minute featurette shows director Rogozhkin at work on the set, composing shots and conferring with technicians, while in interview footage he touches upon the origins of war and Anni's sexuality. The actors offer a closer look at their characters, and discuss how the feeling of camaraderie on such a difficult shoot added dimensions to their on-screen relationship. Haapasalo expresses gratitude over his participation in a Russian film, because the tiny Finnish film industry offers limited opportunities. Standard examinations of the movie's cinematography, music, costumes, and quest for authenticity complete this behind-the-scenes short.

Extras Grade: C+


Final Comments

The Cuckoo is a quiet, meaningful character study of three disparate people set adrift by life and the war that swirls about them, and how they learn to make peace with the world and each other. Unfortunately, the leisurely pacing and meticulous attention to detail stretch the delicate story beyond its limits and dilute the power of its climax. Fine performances, solid direction, and a lovely transfer make this Russian film worthy of a rental, but only by patient, discriminating foreign film aficionados.


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