Hany (2014)

With almost no editing, young Czech director’s first film depicts the spectacular tumult of a night out in Plzeň.

hanyCzech Republic
4*

Director:
Michal Samir

Screenwriter:
Michal Samir

Director of Photography:
Martin Žiaran

Running time: 85 minutes

James Joyce had Dublin, Richard Linklater had Paris, and Michal Samir has Plzeň.

Each deploying their respective, considerable talents, these three storytellers used the space of a city that already existed to let their tales play out in real time: Joyce in the “Wandering Rocks” chapter of his Ulysses, Linklater in Before Sunset and Samir in Hany, which is somewhat of a technical watermark in filmmaking. Samir may not have the experience of either of the other two, but the risk he took with this project has paid off handsomely and provided the movie-going public with a work that is equal parts funny, jaw-dropping, shocking, gentle and raw.

When people talk about this particular film, however, the first thing they discuss very likely won’t be the identity of the space, but rather how the camera moves around inside it. That is because Hany is that rare breed of film that was shot almost entirely in a single take, without any visible cuts. The film consists of one long take lasting most of the film, before a short epilogue (once again, shot in a single take) that occurs a little later in time.

In 2002, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (Russkij Kovcheg) focused the art film world’s attention on the use of the long take in the cinema today, and his ballroom scene in particular remains a remarkable demonstration of one director’s ability to control dozens of actors and camera movements simultaneously. But the film was filled with vignettes separated from each other as the halls of Saint Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum were divided by walls, doors and corridors.

Hany moves into a different territory – to which the long takes of Soy Cuba, Boogie Nights and Kill Bill belong – where the camera is not limited by space and can move freely into and out of buildings and even up and down along the vertical axis. It is important to note, however, that the camera never completely frees itself from its terrestrial shackles (by contrast, think of that beautiful shot in Mathieu Kassovitz’s la Haine when the camera flies out through an open window over a public housing development), and the crane shots deliberately do not convey a sense of freedom but rather a brief sensation of release.

The “single take” actually comprises three separate takes, shot on three consecutive nights and imperceptibly stitched together; one would guess the stitches occur when the horizontal and vertical axes change, but these transitions are all but impossible to detect.

But even before we notice the long take, there is a moment early on that catches our attention. The film opens at 10 p.m. inside a bar (we don’t see the name, but it’s the Anděl Café and Music Bar on Plzeň’s Bezručova Street). A poet named Egon Alter is about to start a one-man reading of his latest play. Next to him, his friend Dušan sits beside a chess board. The camera slowly pulls back and eventually tracks back and makes a 360-degree turn to show us the entire bar and its band of revelers. Such panoramic shots, which seem to reveal there is no one standing behind the camera directing the action or holding a boom, support our belief that this is all happening “for real”. A shot like that is rare, and when it happens, the audience had better sit up and take notice.

The black and white pieces on the chess board in that opening shot suggest the tension between the darkness and the light that pervades the film in many ways and comes to a head during one of the final scenes, taking place at main character Jiří’s flat, in which the darkness is lit up by lasers in the colors of the rainbow.

Jiří is a guy in his 20s who sells drugs in a back room of the bar and has no problem provoking those around him. For most of the first part of the film, he is in the company of Míla, Hana, Hanka and Zuzana. By the end of the film, he will have alienated some of his friends, but we will have learned a little about him in a way that is wholly credible and far from contrived.

The scant knowledge we gain has to do with one of the themes that underlie the narrative in a way that is nearly cloaked from our sight by the events of the film. That theme is family, and although it doesn’t seem to influence Jiří or Egon directly, a few small moments clue us in to the depth of their characters. Egon, who remains in the background almost throughout, suddenly takes center stage toward the end, when his storyline unexpectedly delivers the most poignant scene of the entire film.

The image of moths drawn to a flame – which the camera also seems to embody as it floats between its sources of light, the characters – is presented to us early on, when we leave the bar for the first time, and it starts to become clear the camera will really be travelling around the city in a seemingly unbroken take. There are almost as many moths circling the lights on the street as there are characters with speaking parts, and Samir accomplishes something of a Robert Altman effect by sometimes having people talk over each other. While this is going on in the foreground, more things are happening in the background, adding to an impression of richness that is unusual in the cinema but that ought to be a prime concern for the works that want to reflect reality in all its glorious messiness.

For all the movement and spectacle, especially towards the end, it is the opening and – in retrospect – relatively subdued sequence in the bar that shows Samir’s skill as a director, as he interweaves multiple layers of action to create a shimmering, vibrant atmosphere that is dynamic, authentic, believable and entertaining.

The problem with having so much going on and following so many groups of characters is of course that there is no clear central storyline, and the viewer may struggle to summarise the plot in terms of action rather than space. Despite the occasional impression that the connections between all the pieces elude us, the epilogue delivers a stunning narrative blow as we reassess some of the scenes that came before (including one in a pub that at first seems random) with our newly acquired knowledge.

Not all of our questions are always answered, and at times this uncertainty works to bring about the feeling of ambiguity that André Bazin credited for making films seem realistic. In one scene, a tram from 1954 arrives to pick up two characters on Plzeň’s Square of the Republic and among the passengers, at the side of the frame, we see someone with a scarf covering his mouth. Is this the same man we see a few minutes later striking the first blow against the police, thus ushering in the quick transition to chaos that reigns over the final act?

The quick descent into disorder is preceded by an elegant shot of a man on a bicycle whom we watch while Egon’s rich, melodious voice reverberates in a voice-over on the soundtrack. Egon is one of the film’s many outsiders, which include the naïve and apologetic Míla, the Arab referred to as “Salaam”, and Martin the Slovak, a genuinely nice guy who experiences the malice of a drunken Jiří.

While Jiří is the main character by virtue of making the most noise and the one we see most often, the others are there to offer a mixture of hope for humanity and fear of what may happen to the ones who are weaker than the rest. The director doesn’t take sides, and he doesn’t judge, and while we never laugh directly at anyone, there are many moments that make us laugh out loud at the antics of some of these people. We can nitpick about the empty streets, the acting of a Vietnamese saleswoman who has her merchandise stolen, or a car crash that is not particularly believable, but these are negligible exceptions in a film that is in many respects astounding.

Director of photography Martin Žiaran’s work with the Arri Alexa doesn’t draw unnecessary attention, and Samir’s blocking of his actors is equally laudable because they seem to move freely, even though almost every single movement was planned out in advance. And when the camera floats down the street and the score swells on the soundtrack for the very first time, we cannot help but shiver with wonder.

Hany contributes to the art of filmmaking by immersing us in the world of the film, explicitly situated on the border of fiction and reality but presented in a way that is absolutely thrilling and never dull, even if the riot scene so ominously announced in an opening voiceover is over all too quickly. Whatever the achievements of Russian Ark, it was not a constant thrill.

The film eschews artifice and succeeds in representing a lively night out. In life, things sometimes happen out of the blue, and in that regard perhaps the film’s sudden switch in tone from restraint to anarchy is not all that far-fetched. The dirty, alcohol-soaked and drug-infused final scenes can be difficult to stomach, but the images will stay with you.

Egon refers to his unbroken performance in the bar as a literary night. Samir’s unbroken performance through the streets of Plzeň doesn’t aim to be literary, but despite its thin storyline, his is undeniably one for the books.