Hipsters Dir. Valeriy Todorovskiy

[Leisure Time Features; 2008]

Styles: musical
Others: Tiski, Moulin Rouge

A glossy Russian musical set in a fantasy 1950s USSR where youth rebel against communism by adopting ginormous pompadours, colorful clashing plaid suits, and big band music, Hipsters transposes the logic of the Hollywood’s overworn cool kids vs. squares dichotomy to one of the few historical situations it could actually still be at all interesting. In this USSR, party members are more concerned with the equal distribution of color in their wardrobes than wealth in their state (they only wear gray), and the Stalinist regime’s reign of terror is concerned only with crashing hip kid dance parties and forcibly cutting off their architecturally impressive hairdos and vintage ties.

It’s painful to watch, of course, knowing that, historically, square-knit ties in those kinds of color schemes were really hard to come by, but if you can stomach the naiveté of reducing freedom to fashion and forced labor to forced haircuts, the film’s mostly-predictable pastiche about finding, and then outgrowing, your subculture in the shadow of oppression — be it Stalin or having to grow up, same difference — is as cute as the word babushka.

We enter into the world of the hipsters through their antitheses, the communist youth, during a raid with plenty of tie-cutting (why the hipsters don’t fight back is one of the movie’s more confusing points, since, while a minority in Russia at large, they outnumber the unarmed invaders at their own hipster-only parties). Whether by the colorful, plaid suits or the attractive girl-to-boy ratio of the hipsters versus his own group, one of the li’l communists, Mels (Anton Shagin, who here looks like an angelic, miniature Conan O’Brien), is understandably moved and begins the always-awkward process of transforming himself and his proletariat wardrobe to become a member of a new subculture.

Hipsters, it turns out, are a forgiving and accepting people, and a group of them readily accepts Mels (even though they recognize him from the raid) with only a slight tie-mocking when he shows up alone to wait in line outside a popular hipster haunt. The rest of the country isn’t as accepting, giving Mels spiteful stares. He gets off easy, though; his hipster comrades face discrimination ranging from being arrested by secret police for buying jazz records from an American on the black market, to having to get a haircut in order to secure a lucrative job as a diplomat.

While exotic in its bizarre mix of genres and geopolitics, Hipsters is universal enough: to get a job in politics, you have to dress as unstylishly as possible; to be a musical, you have to have nonsensical lyrics; and to score with the hottest people, you have to have a good wardrobe. Mels’ transformation would be, of course, pointless if he didn’t score with a hipsterette, and he does, after some virginal fumbling, with the moody, mysterious hipster Polly (Oksana Akinshina). They even, sort of, live contentedly ever after, despite both of their former lives coming back to haunt them, scissors in hand.

It’s hard to tell if the lack of a fairytale ending is principled or just petering out, but Hipsters does go out with a big musical number that’s as energetic conceptually as choreographically. When Mels friend Fred (Maskim Matveev) returns from America after working there as a diplomat, he reports solemnly that there are no hipsters in the US, throwing Mels into a crisis. His speedy recovery, though, accompanies a surprisingly subtle commentary on the variegated, multidirectional nature of America’s so-called cultural imperialism. If what they emulate was only a fiction, that just makes them all the more authentic. As Mels and Polly dance through the streets of Moscow, they’re suddenly joined by a throng composed of all the country’s contemporary subcultures, from gutter punks to ravers. None of them, to my American eye, look quite right, and yet there they are.

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