Busan 2020 Review: In THREE, Soviet Rule Made Monsters Of Everyone
A police intern becomes the lead investigator in one of the most gruesome and notorious murder cases in modern history, in Ruslan Pak's bleak and introspective new thriller. Inspired by the true story of Kazakh serial killer and cannibal Nikolai "Metal Fang" Dzhumagaliev, convicted of murdering seven young women between 1979 and 1980, Three is as much a portrait of a small rural community on the outskirts of the Soviet Union, as it is an occasionally grisly procedural.
A co-production between Kazakhstan, South Korea, Uzbekistan, and Russia, Pak’s film examines Cold War bureaucracy, and how the tentacles of Moscow’s Soviet leadership ensnared even the most remote corners of its insidious realm. Three premiered at this year's Busan International Film Festival, where it won the New Currents Award, tied with Harumoto Yujiro’s A Balance.
Fresh-faced intern Sher Sadikhov (Askar Ilyassov) arrives for duty in the small town of Kaskelen, and despite his lack of on-the-job experience, is immediately thrown in at the deep-end investigating a series of brutal murders. He takes statements from confessed killers, so desperate for food that supermarket altercations quickly turn violent, and examines the severed head of a young woman, carelessly discarded behind a residential building.
There is little question over who is responsible for these heinous crimes. In the film’s opening scene we witness Alik Korazhanov (Zhandos Aibasso) as he dismembers his latest victim in front of her young daughter. Later, while naked and smeared in blood, he proudly presents a severed head to his friends, who are eating a meal he prepared for them, made, unbeknownst to them, from his victim’s flesh.
Three, therefore, is not a whodunnit, but rather a look at how such violence impacts everyone who comes into contact with it, and how the authorities scramble to make something reprehensible into something that can be explained away, or dismissed outright. It is not the female victims, but Sher and his colleagues who we see suffer from their interactions with Alik. While the killer reels and squirms like a wild animal caught in a trap, it is the police who are reprimanded and punished by an anonymous leadership that refuses to accept or admit that such crimes are even possible on their watch.
One of the classic tropes of crime thrillers that Pak’s film does embrace, is the yin yang duality between the protagonist and his quarry. Sher and Alik are both young men, yet both still live with overbearing elder sisters. Both assume the role not only of sibling, but also of mother and even spouse, very much in control of their domestic situation. Dina (Samal Yeslyamova) is so fiercely protective of Sher that she repeatedly barges in where she is not wanted, interfering with police operations, embarrassing her brother and even endangering those present.
Alik’s sister Alina (Tolganay Talgat) wields similar power over her younger sibling, and it soon becomes apparent that she is, to some degree at least, complicit in his crimes and frequent escapes from the law. Inevitably, perhaps, Dina attracts the attention of Alik, dovetailing Sher’s investigation into a personal vendetta that only escalates his violent obsession with bringing Alik to justice.
Pak, who hails from Uzbekistan and honed his craft at the Korean National University of Arts, deftly balances the numerous themes at play within his film. Key influences include glossy thrillers like Memories of Murder and I Saw the Devil, not least in their portrayals of provincial law enforcement and personal vendettas, but his style is more languid, naturalistic and ponderous, reminiscent of Corneliu Porumboiu's Romanian drama Police, Adjective.
Most fascinating of all, however, is the attitude towards the entire case which emanates, largely unseen, by the authorities in Moscow. Sher’s superior Colonel Oleg Snegirev (Igor Savochkin) commands power and respect within the force and the community, but even he is not immune to the face-saving whims of the Politburo.
Catching the criminal appears to fall a distant second in their priorities to managing and eradicating the idea that cannibalism could ever exist within the Soviet Union, especially in the months leading up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics, when the eyes of the world will be turned in their direction. The fact that some far-flung province is being terrorised by a deranged, glazed-eyed maniac, who pontificates about ridding the world of the disease that is women, is wholly irrelevant.
Pak’s outrage is clearly trained at their lack of humanity and empathy, suggesting that their crimes, their extended mistreatment of the millions who fell under their exploitative governance, only helped nurture mentally unhinged monsters like Korazhanov, and in his frustration, Sher too, even as they scrambled to eradicate the very notion of their existence.
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