By Preston Wilder
When it comes to Mug, the ‘what?’ is less important than the ‘why?’ – not why the film exists but why it’s being shown here, at the multiplex no less. This is a first, if I’m not mistaken. Local cinemas have always screened some European films, of course (I’m talking multiplex, not the film societies), but it’s always been commercial fare, British action movies like Stratton or French comedies like Gaston Lagaffe. This is a very different animal – a serious-minded Polish drama which won an award at last year’s Berlin festival but is unlikely to please the casual, ‘Here we are at the Mall, let’s watch a movie to pass the time’-type viewer.
It’s worth pondering just why this is happening. The likely scenario is that distribution companies in Greece no longer demand a fee, as they did in the days of film prints, but will now settle for a slice of whatever box-office they can get from a tiny market like Cyprus. Mug, after all, is playing once a day, at 8pm, and will likely be gone after a week; it only makes financial sense to show it if the theatre, essentially, has nothing to lose (it’ll probably make about as much – i.e. almost nothing – as a third week of The Hummingbird Project). Yet it’s still intriguing that the Cineplex should be trying to diversify in this way. Could it be that their core audience, teens and college students, is beginning to collapse under the onslaught of Netflix, torrents, gaming, etc etc?
The film is in Polish with Greek subtitles, hence inaccessible to many readers of this paper. It’s also, ironically, showing on the one week per year when you can find world-cinema ‘festival films’ with English subtitles, at Cyprus Film Days. (Why didn’t the Cineplex choose something more well-known, like the high-profile movies – Dogman, The Guilty – showing at CFD? I assume this was all that was available.) Still, it’s worth calling attention to this odd experiment. Making the multiplex more representative – one screen out of six regularly devoted to more grown-up fare, perhaps – has always been a cinephile dream, and the presence of films like Mug should be applauded. Today a Polish drama, tomorrow a Cannes prize winner or American indie.
And what of the film itself? Turns out the ‘what?’ is almost as intriguing as the ‘why?’, though this isn’t a subtle movie – a savage attack on hypocrisy and small-town intolerance, a morality tale as old (and old-fashioned) as, say, Gentleman’s Agreement, the 1947 Oscar winner where Gregory Peck pretended to be Jewish and instantly found the world treating him differently. Admittedly, the hero in this case (Jacek, played by Mateusz Kosciukiewicz) isn’t pretending, a workplace accident having totally altered his appearance (the doctors give him a face transplant, like in Face/Off!) but the point is the same: whereas before he was part of society, now he’s ostracised and treated like a monster – even as the townspeople, devout Christians all, dutifully go to confession and set about building the world’s largest statue of Jesus.
The film has some subtle touches, making clear for instance that appearance has always been an issue: even before his accident, scruffy Jacek’s heavy-metal look (little kids run after him in the street yelling “Satanist!”) is unpopular with his family, who urge him to smarten up. The depiction of small-town life – and values – is scathing in general: Jacek’s brother-in-law makes racist jokes (“A Muslim, a Jew and a Black jump from a building. Who wins?… Society!”) and nationalist, Poland-for-the-Poles pronouncements. The details pile up: a pig squealing piteously before being killed, a pitiful old drunk down at the bottle shop, a slutty girl (Jacek’s girlfriend, in fact) dancing in a bar, a scuffle between Poles and “gypsies”. It’s powerful, but also condescending. It’s – no pun intended – a mug’s game for a well-travelled, prize-winning filmmaker to portray rural Poles as racist bumpkins.
Mug dissipates slightly in the final act, once the point has been made. There’s also a weird out-of-focus effect (presumably meant to suggest the way post-transplant Jacek, blind in one eye, looks at the world) that doesn’t quite work, recalling the Vaseline-smeared close-ups in old Hollywood movies – but director Malgorzata Szumowska has a confident, if rather showy, style. There are lovely images, like a church with its lights on, at dusk, standing next to a lake with car headlights gleaming in the distance. There are oddball scenes, like the Church giving Jacek an exorcism (“I don’t know who he is, but he’s not my son,” his mum tells the priest, claiming his new face has put the Devil in him). There are interesting shots, like an escalating family argument observed with a static camera, with people walking in and out of frame. Above all, Mug is playing at the multiplex, just a few feet from where fanboys will soon be flocking to Avengers: Endgame. Why? I’m not sure, but I like the idea of that.
DIRECTED BY Malgorzata Szumowska
STARRING Mateusz Kosciukiewicz, Agnieszka Podsiadlik, Malgorzata Gorol
Poland 2018 91 mins
In Polish, with Greek subtitles