There's been a handful of shorts at ŻubrOFFka that have opened by filming horses, like a symbolic statement of intent about the pace they intend to continue at. Few do it quite as well as Roxana Stroe's A Night in Tokoriki, recent winner of the Best Story at ŻubrOFFka's 11th closing ceremony and Best Short in Berlinale's Generation strand. That's because Stroe soon reverses the camera to reveal an olive-skinned, comic man driving the blinkered horses at speed, while a cart load of gaudy, ecentric-looking friends sits behind him.
Together they make up a delightful assortment of Romanian oddballs. There's our cocky protagonist whipping the reigns in a pink shirt and hypnotising stripped trousers, a heavy-set man with a mullet and double denim, a scrawny chap with long, greasy hair and one of those guys who always seems to be wearing sunglasses for no good reason. These are the boys, and they are heading for a messy night at a wedding in Tokoriki.
These actors' maschismo is beautifully backed up by an igeniously garish Romanian soundtrack, taken directly from the director's 90s upbringing. Both catchy and daft, the first retro pop song we hear croons about "Alin," the guy that all the ladies love - lyrics superimposed over the main character's cart-driving badassery.
Effortlessly, this music paints an atmosphere of five lads on the prowl - and none of its hilarious silliness is lost on us. This lends the short something of the studiously observed styles and youthful energy of Martin Scorsese's Quadrophenia, except Stroe's film is very much more on the weird, comic Borat side of things.
But in Stroe's hands, the movie's use of music just gets better and better. Remarkably, for a director who has never had previous experience shooting music videos, it is almost as if music tells and drives the story in the practically dialogueless movie. What's more, in the film's opening moments, the music even abruptly cuts out, laying bare the foolishness of the men's own self-perceived bravado. This is one filmmaker who would seriously kick butt at music video directing.
Equally glorious is the film's aesthetic. It has a real tacky, one-horse-town vibe, brilliantly reinforced through some dusky colour grading and the naturally dated colours of the short's 35mm film. Also great is the amount of tawdry neon-lighting, Friesian cows and glittery gold tank tops that make it into A Night in Tokoriki. They capture the sense of a village hall turned into the make-shift wedding reception/rowdy nightclub perfectly.
Mischief, of course, is never far away once the boys arrive at the boozey wedding. As the 90s tunes blare, the five misfits hit the floor. They're framed close up as they dance, often leaving us with little more to watch than bizarrely bobbing heads and shoulders. The rest of their bodies' strange movements are left to our imagination. Every aspect of their physiques and costumes is closely observed to bring about a smile, and it's quite the triumph!
Soon Alin's eyes follow the new bride around the room. There is a clear jealousy in his eyes, but it's always kept light by the ridiculousness of his companions. It seems unmistakable that this boy and girl have romantic history, and it even escalates into a three-way dance off between the bride, groom and Alin. This makes for a cracking scene that looks not unlike a fight between three flirting pigeons.
Except this witty little short has a narrative trick up its sleeve that will see it making a worthy addition to some pretty unexpected film festival programmes. A Night in Tokoriki is a real feel-good success story too, coming as it does at the hands of a emerging Romanian director and starring a Romany actor who was expelled from acting school under rather controversial circumstances.
It's also just a really unusual, idiosyncratic piece of Romanian cinema. Definitely one of those shorts that makes you do a double-take, both in terms of its talent and its story line, and hopefully it will have people scrutinising their own prejudices and assumptions right across the globe (and not just in Romania). A big shout out goes to the actor who plays the DJ in this film too. Blatantly a legend.