Tallin 2021 Review: UPURGA, Latvian Mystery Thriller is About More Than You Think
Andrejs is a rafting instructor who is haunted by a tragic event his past. When he learns that his sister, Mara, and her vlogging team want to go into the woods to shoot a bit for her vlog, he insists on leading the trip. Even before they begin their trip down river the local ranger Salins crashes the party. He comes with a warning. Do not leave the river, do not enter the woods. Passing him off as a crazy local, the team leaves camp and ventures into the forest without Andrejs to shoot their promo.
When they return something is clearly not right. Small, delicate flowers hang from the girls’ ears and they all seem to be under the influence of something. Even the straight-laced producer, Eva, makes a pass at Andrejas back in his van. Andrejas wakes up, submerged in a pool of fetid water and discovers that everyone has all but disappeared from camp. He desperately begins searching for Mara and the rest, confronting the locals and their superstitions along the way. The longer he searches the more he wonders, what if Salins’ warnings and the local superstitions are in fact real?
Up front, our first impressions from the trailer we released a couple weeks ago gave the impression that we were in store for something a bit more backwoods horror. Instead, what we have here is a solitary mission of a young man, trying to find his missing sister and the strange people that he encounters along the way. The more he learns about the locals’ fears the more he begins to understand what went wrong in the woods. At least he and we think so. Olte is telling a story that is meager in details and deep in mystery. It is easy to fall under its spell of ambivalence as you find yourself eager as well for answers to this mystery.
Latvian director Ugis Olte directs his first feature length film, Upurga, a mystery thriller that is a controlled mix of eco and rural terror. It acknowledges there are possible influences and preconceptions but will not be bound by them. Upurga shirks conventional and contemporary storytelling with abrupt jumps and cuts in the timeline, dropping in confrontations with a host of odd characters, and bolstering itself with equally mysterious and striking visual oddities. Oddities such as the shot of a man, naked, playing a fiddle on a tree laying over the river. You know, standard imagery.
Olte wisely takes his story In and out of the forest, understanding that not everyone is inclined to watch a movie about one person in one location. Also, when the local populace is not eager to spend much time in the forest chances are slim to none that you’ll come across them anywhere but outside of the treeline. It also doesn’t reinforce the mystery of the sister’s disappearance unless you come across someone who believes something else was at play. Altercations with locals range from hostile and violent to just plain odd and weird. There is very slight and dark humor in some of these exchanges and other situations that dip into absurdism.
If there were any part of Upurga that we have an issue with, it is how the story and the mystery ends. Here is where there may be some trouble. The way that Upurga sort of conveniently wraps up in the end does feel a bit anticlimactic after everything that Andrejas will go through to find Mara.
If the story was about Andrejas overcoming his fears, not living in the past and letting that event in his past dictate his decisions, that would be okay. But there was really nothing other than the prologue which suggests that. Andrejas just goes right into survival mode - and kudos must be given for really paying attention to details like that - and onto finding his sister.
So here we go. While you have committed your attention to Andrejas and his search for his sister it would seem that for Olte and his co-writers Bojana Babic and Lucas Abrahão they really wanted Upurga to be about something else. And this is something that should just be left for discovery by the viewers who will watch Upurga down the road. We do not think this is unfair on anyone’s behalf but the way that this film… absently... wraps up the mystery of everyone's disappearance but it may be a point of contention for some. A little too tidy, we think.
Upurga is the kind of film you get lost in, ironically. A film that you let wash over you like the rapids of the river. It is dark and mysterious, sprinkled with dark humor, absurdism and an oddness attributed to its cast of supporting characters. It does show promise of things to come from Olte if he decides to continue with narrative films. We appreciated what he did here and it does make us wonder what he could do with a screenplay with a bit more obvious intention and purpose, a bit more linear in focus so we are watching the same story that he is telling.