Translating the Russian Disney film, the Last Warrior

Mama is not sure that Disney should have allowed their Russian language film project to be called Posledniy Bogatyr (Последний Богатырь). This is because it is difficult to translate.

 The choices in the English language speaking world seem to be between the Last Warrior, which sounds inappropriately militaristic, The Last Knight, which is better in terms of thematic relevance and all but conjures up all the wrong visual images, and the Last Hero, which has already been taken.

I mean, you wouldn’t call samurai anything else, would you? And a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr, and particularly so in this film, which is a romp though some of Russia’s best loved fairy tales.

Of course, Disney might not be planning an English language release. I mean, they’d have to dub it or something! Still.

The hero of the Last Warrior is Ivan (of course he is), a modern Muscovite who is a magician and a con man who gets unexpectedly dumped in a magical fantasyland version of Russia, and finds himself responsible for saving the day (of course he does).

As the Last Knight goes about establishing his backstory, there are all sorts of pleasing Moscow references  such as him living in what looks like a swish apartment in the high-rise complex of Moscow city (an extremely good choice for his character, given that the reputation of the development is mostly built on smoke and mirrors, and everyone in Moscow knows it). He’s the star of a reality TV show. He has encounters with difficult babushkas and his salt-of-the-earth middle-aged housekeeper. He also gets into trouble with VIP Russians and their bouncers, and ends up being chased around a shopping mall with a giant water slide complex inside. And look out for the gratuitous Putin reference.

Mama thinks somebody had a lot of fun with this section. The Last Hero may have been backed by Disney, but it is really driven by a Russian production company, Yellow, Black and White, who are responsible for a number of hit TV sit coms in Russia. Programmes which have also provided both the lead hero, played by Viktor Khorinyak, and the lead villain, played by Ekaterina Vilkova. The local knowledge really shows.

Not that this means that only Russians or people very familiar with Russian culture can enjoy the Last Bogatyr. Yes, if you know your Slavic folklore you will be happily anticipating certain entrances and appreciate the way that Russian fairy tale tropes are dealt with, including the way that this provides a plot twist that Mama, at least, did not see coming. But Slav fairy tales are not that dissimilar to folklore the world over, and the Last Warrior makes no real assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with the stories; each character is introduced carefully, and the plot itself is wholly new. Or at least as new as it can be given the genre.

The Last Warrior Disney Russian film selfie

So was it any good?

Well, the landscape that the heroes spend their time trekking through is lovely. High altitude meadows filled with wildflowers, oak trees and pine forests all around, babbling streams and frosty mountains looming in the distance. Mama was even moved to look up where the Last Knight was shot, and apparently it was actually filmed on Russian territory, down by Sochi and a bit further across in the Caucuses. She can only assume that this bit was sponsored by the Southern Russia Domestic Tourism Board.

Also, Mama and I are both agreed that it is pretty cool that the three most competent people in the film are women. The youngest of these, Vasilysa, (Mila Sivatskaya) is, in fact, the muscle for the band of heroes. She gets to attack people expertly with swords and wear reasonably sensible clothes for a fighting woman in fantasy land (looking not dissimilar to a certain Rey of Star Wars fame to be honest). Sivatskaya also managed the difficult job of allowing Vasilysa’s more vulnerable side to give a bit of verisimilitude to her inevitable attraction to Ivan.

There’s a couple of really good fight scenes and horse chases of the sort that if you enjoy those scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean, you will almost certainly appreciate the ones in the Last Hero. It is certainly the sort of thing that Mama goes to the cinema for. The problem she had here was that the camerawork in these moments favoured close up jerky movements cutting swiftly between different angles and all the characters involved, which detracted from her appreciation of the action a bit in places. As in, she couldn’t actually see it.

Possibly it was part of the obvious strategy of making the movie as whole family friendly as possible. Blood and gore was decidedly not in evidence, and the fights were inventive in demonstrating the ways to overcome your enemy without actually dismembering them. Or, in fact, killing them even a little bit. I liked this. I’d been a bit dubious about going to see a film about Baba Yaga. In Mama’s old book of fairy takes from around the world the story of Vasilysa and Russia’s archetypal witch is among the most hair-raising. This, in a book written in the seventies, when Granny was irretrievably eaten by the wolf, and the other wolf boiled alive by the pigs. Sort of thing.

And Baba Yaga doesn’t really improve when you get in amongst the Russians and hear more.

Nothing of that sort here. In fact Papa grumbled a bit that Koschei the Immortal (Konstantin Lavronenko), usually Baba Yaga’s equal in undying menace, was a bit lacking in both manic evil cackling or fighting prowess. Mama, on the other hand, rather liked the calm world-weariness he projected in what is otherwise quite a melodramatic movie, and my Excitable Big Brother thought he was The Best.

Mama liked Baba Yaga best, played by Elena Yakovleva, despite her seven-year old misgivings. Of course she did. Mama is… getting… older…  and rather appreciated the fact that two of the more important characters are not, let’s just say, in their first blush of youth. Baba Yaga is extremely grumpy, wants to eat Ivan, and is a master of magic potions and magic creature seduction.

Fabulous, and the latter scenes a relatively neat way to reference the apparent preference of fairy tales around the world to make everything about sex with nubile young women, without, actually, making it about sex with nubile young women. Especially when the Last Bogatyr turned the whole stereotype on its head. Although Mama would probably have cut that plotline out altogether. She suspects some of the scriptwriters of taking their research into folk tales and clear determination to reference nearly all of them too seriously.

Still, at least it wasn’t scary.

As for the rest of the cast, Khorinyak as Ivan manages the journey from being a bit of a cad to a true big-hearted bogatyr hero well, and is also able to handle the physical humour of the role. As for Vilkova, as the evil queen she was suitably implacable and menacing, a dab hand with a bow and arrow, had great hair and turned into a giant white badass owl. What more could you want? In your FACE Harry Potter.

There were actual laugh out loud moments, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think in things that are billed as comedies. And there was at least one joke which the adults found funnier than the kids, which was nice for them. But we all thought the business with Koschei and the rock was hysterical.

But most impressive as a recommendation is that Papa, who is extraordinarily fussy about films, liked it, his quibble about a toothless Koschei notwithstanding. I’ll be honest, this is as rare as an extremely rare thing, and it makes no difference usually whether the movie is Russian, English, French or Japanese.

Of course, he was running a fever.

Anyway, let’s hope that the broad hint that a sequel could be forthcoming pays off. The Last Warrior seems to have done decent business at the box office and been reasonably well received by the critics, so it may well. That’ll give you, what, a year or so to learn Russian so you can enjoy it all too. Although if you are in Germany, it comes out on 19th November. Go for it.

And in case you can’t access it any other way, here is a trailer with English subtitles. Enjoy!

More information

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Samurai society.

Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.

CulturedKids

A night at the Bulgakov Museum Moscow. And the other one too.

17th May was International Museum Day. Apparently.

Mama didn’t know this in advance, but she should really have been looking out for it as this date triggers the Museum Night event across Europe. And Moscow is in Europe, right?

So what happens on Moscow Museum Night, or Ночь в Музее in Russian, is that Museums throw open their doors, or perhaps, leave them open would be a better phrase, until much much later than usual. And since these days museums regularly stay open until 9 or 10 in the evening at least once a week, this means midnight.

But that’s not all! It’s an opportunity for the museums to put on a bit of a show, so there are all sorts of events going on inside the museums on top of whatever is usually there. Concerts, danceshows, crafting, fashion parades and theatrical performances.

And in Moscow, if you usually have to pay for entrance, on this night they are free!

Quite why Mama and Papa decided that they and my Stoic Big Brother should try to visit as many of Moscow’s museums as they could on foot between the hours of 7pm and 12, I do not know, as this isn’t an integral part of the programming. But somewhere between sauntering from one location towards their next choice of cultural experience they came across another, and an idea was born.

In total they managed four museums and an art gallery. Mama spent much of the next day lying down with her feet up and a wet cloth over her eyes declaring that next weekend we would find the most low brow thing for kids in the capital and do that.

So where did they go?

Well, they started off at Mikhail Bulgakov’s flat, famous not just because he once had a room in a communal apartment there and abandoned his wife in a second apartment in the same block, but because it’s the building the Devil, Woland, lived in when he came to Moscow in the book Master and Margarita.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow Bulgakov Graffiti

Who was Mikhail Bulgakov? You probably aren’t asking this, the man is famous, but Mama is going to tell you anyway. Born in Kyiv, Ukraine, Bulgakov’s first career was as a doctor. He worked on the front line in world war one, then in a provincial backwater, then back in Kyiv and later was co-opted by whichever army was passing through his region in the civil war following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Not a pleasant experience by any means. He ended up abandoning medicine forever in favour of becoming a writer in Moscow.

In this new endevour he was somewhat successful, as one of his early plays, the White Guard, dealing with the fortunes and misfortunes of an anti-Bolshevik family in Kyiv during the civil war, was a huge box office hit. It was also hugely popular with Stalin, for reasons which nobody seems to quite understand. Despite Bulgakov adding scenes such as the youngest son’s move towards the communists towards the end of the play in a bid to get it past the censors, it was blasted by reviewers for being entirely too sympathetic towards the bourgeois main characters. Nevertheless, Stalin saw it more than 15 times.

Unfortunately, Mikhail’s literary ouvre continued to be… complex and so many of his later projects were either also panned by critics or outright banned. He was in regular employment behind the scenes at theatres thanks to Stalin’s patronage, but he wasn’t able to get any of his own works published after 1930 or thereabouts. Master and Margarita was only made public in 1966, twenty six years after his death, for example, despite him having begun it in the late 20s.

It was an immediate hit at that point, both in the Soviet Union and abroad, and since then Bulgakov’s reputation as one of the finest writers of the 20th century has grown. Master and Margarita is often quoted as Russians’ top pick for greatest work of literature of all time, in fact. Yes, over War and Peace, over Crime and Punishment.

If you are given to enjoying grotesque magical realism with oblique digs at contemporary society, you will like it too. It’s certainly one of Mama’s favoutite books. Go read it (again, if necessary). And when you have finished that, please enjoy a five minute speculation as to quite how Heart of a Dog (a man’s heart is transplanted into a dog, with unpredictable consequences) and Ivan Vasilievich (Ivan the Terrible and a 20th century petty criminal become switched, with predicable consequences) both  very popular Soviet era movies, are also examples of biting social commentary. You think the analogy in Animal Farm is clever, you haven’t come across Bulgakov.

Anyway. As it turns out Bulgakov’s former block of flats boasts not just one Bulgakov Museum but two apparently competing ones, both of which were enthusiastically participating in Moscow Museum Night. Oddly, the more authentic one, flat 50, the one with Bulgakov’s actual room and satanic connection, was the one without the really long queue to get in. As my Papa is someone who says that he didn’t avoid queuing in the dying days of the Soviet Union only to start now, that’s the one the family went to.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow Courtyard
The door on the right is the actual flat museum and on the left is the other one.

There is a lot of Master and Margarita related graffiti in the stairwell.

Graffiti at Bulgakov Museum Moscow

The Moscow authorities spent most of the 80s fighting a losing battle against it, and after they gave up at the end of the decade it has flourished, only once succumbing to some anti satanic nut job who set out to destroy it and some of the holdings of one of the museums.

Original Graffiti Bulgakov Museum Moscow
I think this is a bit of surviving graffiti – it’s certainly older than the rest.

Well, the devil does have all of the best lines in the book, and Jesus comes across as a decidedly unmagical sort of person. That might be irritating, even if you didn’t have some kind of axe to grind as a former neighbour of the Bulgakov Museum(s).

Graffiti at Bulgakov Museum Moscow

Once you get inside, the flat itself is more of an art installation than a straightforward retelling of the life of Bulgakov and his books. My Stoic Big Brother particularly enjoyed the room where you could push buttons and light up windows to little dioramas representing many of the people who also lived in the building over the years. Because as well as being Bulgakov AND the devil’s dwelling place, it’s an interesting building in and of itself. Which may have been why Bulgakov interwove it into his stories in the first place, of course.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow

More likely, though, it was because he absolutely hated the place.

It was built pre-revolution as a luxury apartment block in the Art Nouveau style, which architecturally speaking has echos all over this area of Moscow, and was originally occupied by luminaries of the artistic establishment. Post revolution, it became one of the first communes, and although it still retained a bohemian tone, Bulgakov was not a fan, particularly as the plumbing was difficult.

Mama, who didn’t have to live there, liked the kitchen.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow Kitchen

But there were also items of furniture and nicknacks and even Bulgakov’s own typewriter. Admittedly sourced from, mainly, other places Bulgakov had lived, or his relatives. And there were tours (in Russian). And on this Moscow Museum Night, the whole place was cheerfully busy. Mama and the gang had a very satisfying poke round and then they left and went back to the courtyard.

Where there was a cat drawing competition.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow Cat Drawing

For those who do not know the novel Master and Margarita, a black cat is one of the most memorable characters in Woland’s retinue. He’s also called Begemot, which is the Russian word for ‘behemoth’ but is also the word for ‘hippopotamus’ in Russian. Master and Margarita, Mama is assured by every Russian she has had a conversation about it with, loses a lot in the translation. Certainly her copy had extensive footnotes for practically every line trying to explain either the word play or quite why mention of a seemingly innocuous household object was a profound satirical dig. And you can see why, given that Mama has just spent 100 words on why a cat’s name is funny.

Bulgakov Museum Moscow Cat Graffiti

Literary criticism aside, the cat drawing competition having a connection to the animal world, my Stoic Brig Brother got involved, and naturally he won.

It turned out the prize was to jump the queue for the other Bulgakov Museum.

Now, this Bulgakov Museum is an unofficial one. It was started first in a different part of the building to the one Bulgakov lived in because flat 50 itself was at that time unavailable. They do have a fair number of small items belonging to the great writer or his relatives, and some enthusiastic cos-playing guides who run an excursion (in Russian) around them. But it was originally a small theatre for Bulgakov’s banned plays, which have now relocated (loudly) to the basement. What is left mostly seems to be a cafe and souvenir shop, and a lot of Bulgakov-themed event planning (in Russian).

Although, oddly, when you have finished the tour of that Bulgakov Museum, they take you for a climb round the back stairs of the building to the other Bulgakov Museum. So perhaps the rivalry is not that fierce.

Still, to be honest, Mama thinks that if you are ever in Moscow and trying to choose which of the two museums you should go and look at, as a non-Russian speaker, you should go straight for the other one. Especially if there is any kind of queue. This may be because she was a bit Bulgakov-ed out by the end of it all though, and now, dear reader, as a result so probably are you. You are welcome, and your mileage may vary. The unofficial museum definitely has a better statue outside.

And what did the family do after the Bulgakov Museum(s)? Well, that is a story for another day.

More information

The Flat 50 Museum (in English).

The other museum (in Russian).

The Moscow Museum Night page, if you want to try to guess where else my family went (in Russian).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Mikail Bulgakov, Satirist and Playwright.

Address: 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya street, Moscow, 125047.

Opening: Bulgakov’s former flat is open Tuesday to Sunday 12 noon to 7pm, but CLOSED on Mondays. The other one seems to be more built around events.

Admission: Flat 50 is 150 roubles for adults and 50 roubles for schoolchildren.

Getting there: The Bulgakov Museum (both of them) is just round the corner from Mayakovskaya metro station (green line).

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Everything you ever wanted to know about Mikail Bulgakov, the Master and Margarita an the two Bulgakov Museums in Moscow

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