March 25, 2005

Up and Down

Directed by Jan Hrebejk

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

“In The Children of Herakles, Euripides wrote about emigrants,” muses college lecturer Otto (Jan Tríska) in Up and Down, “and that theme runs through human history like a leitmotif.” That statement encapsulates the central thesis of this Altman-esque modern Czech saga from Divided We Fall director Jan Hrebejk, although the film encompasses many other social concerns. It examines various family structures: operational/dysfunctional, broken/surrogate, biological/adoptive. The film also contemplates the crises that erupt between inherited and desired identities.

Opening with a truckload of illegal South Asian immigrants getting past the Czech-Slovak checkpoint, the film soon launches into an exposé on the roots and manifestations of xenophobia. A missing wallet promptly triggers a panicked confrontation between humanitarian worker Hana (Ingrid Timková) and a foreign bystander. Mila (Natasa Burger) purchases a dark-skinned infant on the black market, which results in a fallout between her meathead boyfriend Franta (Jirí Machácek) and his bigot hooligan father figure The Colonel (Jaroslav Ducek). The film juxtaposes that pair of makeshift domestic relationships with Otto’s two households that haven’t been on speaking terms with one another. Only after a stroke does he finally summon estranged wife Vera (Emília Vásáryová) and offspring Martin (Petr Forman, son of Milos) to gather for the first time in two decades with long-term girlfriend Hana and 18-year-old daughter Lenka (Kristýna Liska-Boková).

The identity crises in the film permeate beyond familial roles. Immigrants endure arduous treks to seek better lives, but their ethnicities still elicit suspicion, discrimination and rejection in their land of hope and dreams. The sterile Mila obsessively yearns for motherhood. Due to a misdemeanor on his record, Franta must settle for being a security guard instead of a police officer. Martin once defied Otto’s wishes to pursue a career in photography, but eventually winds up working in a surf shop.

With all the secrets and lies beginning to mercilessly unravel in its final act, Up and Down is at once chillingly bleak and cautiously optimistic. Hrebejk executes this intricately multifaceted epic with authority, withholding judgment on its morally murky characters and also sparing viewers the P.T. Anderson-ish pretenses. The film’s representation of Australia as a paradise of racial harmony is probably a bit naïve. Still, this magnificent masterpiece is so universally relevant that it offers us much food for thought in reflection on our own immigration and diversity issues.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.