Director: Rashid Nugmanov.
Production: Kazakhfilm; color; 35mm; running time: 81 minutes. Filmed on location in Alma-Ata and at the Aral Sea.
Producer: Rashid Nugmanov; screenplay: Alexander Baranov, Bakhyt Kilibayev; photography: Murat Nugmanov; design: Murat Musin; music: Viktor Tsoi.
Cast: Viktor Tsoi ( Moro ), Marina Smirnova ( Dina ), Pyotr Mamanov ( Doctor ), Aleksander Baschirov ( Spartak ).
Horton, Andrew, and Michael Brashinsky, The Zero Hour: Glasnost and Soviet Cinema in Transition , Princeton, New Jersey, 1992.
Lawton, Anna, editor, The Red Screen: Politics, Society, Art in Soviet Cinema , London and New York, 1992.
Horton, Andrew, editor, Inside Soviet Film Satire: Laughter with a Lash, 1993.
Brashinsky, Michael, and Andrew Horton, editors, Russian Critics on the Cinema of Glasnost , 1994.
Thompson, Kristin, and David Bordwell, Film History: An Introduction , New York, 1994.
Abramovich, A., Soviet Film (Moscow), February 1989.
Plakhov, Andrei, "Soviet Cinema into the 90's," in Sight & Sound (London), Spring 1989.
Ciesol, Forrest, "Kazakhstan Wave," in Sight and Sound (London), Fall 1989.
Drozdova, M., and E. Stisova, Isskustvo Kino (Moscow), March 1989.
Variety (New York), 31 May 1989.
Horton, A., "Nomad from Kazakhstan," in Film Criticism (Meadville, Pennsylvania), Winter 1989–90.
Brashinsky, Michael, "The Ant Hill in the Year of the Dragon," in New Orleans Review (New Orleans), Spring 1990.
Horton, Andrew, "Nomad from Kazakhstan: An Interview with Rashid Nugmanov," in Film Criticism , Summer 1990.
Hayes, N., "Recent Soviet Film," in Enclitic , vol. 11, no. 4, 1994.
* * *
In the bleak filmscape of glasnost , The Needle stood out as a black sheep of a movie. The most playful and offbeat of the Soviet films of the period, it contrasted sharply to the mainstream, which was overwhelmed with revisionism of the Stalinist past and nihilistic social criticism.
Made in 1988 by a young Kazakh director, Rashid Nugmanov, fresh out of VGIK (the national film school), The Needle was a pioneering effort in several ways. Having come from a remote, stagnant republic of Kazakhstan, the picture set off a movement that has come to be known as the "Kazakh New Wave." Represented by such works as Alexander Baranov's and Bakhyt Kilibayev's The Three (1988) and Woman of the Day (1990); Kilibayev's The Tick (1990); Baranov's He and She (1990); Abai Karpykov's Little Fish in Love (1989); and Serik Aprymov's The Last Stop (1989), the Kazakh New Wave was for the agonizing Soviet film of the late 1980s what the French New Wave was for the dusty French film of the late 1950s. The Needle was the movement's a bout de souffle. The film also became a model for the Russian version of postmodernism—uninhibited and uninformed, compensating for the lack of culture, skill, and resources with mischief and wit. A young man named Moro (played by Viktor Tsoi, the late rock 'n' roll legend from the St. Petersburg band "Kino") returns to his Asiatic hometown only to find his exgirlfriend, Dina (Marina Smirnova), becoming a drug addict and himself becoming involved in the bizarre life of the city's underworld. In an attempt to save Dina, Moro takes her away to the Aral Sea, turned into a barren desert by the time they arrive. There Dina seems cured, but back in town everything starts anew. Almost desperate, Moro decides to fight the drug dealers, led by a hospital doctor (played by another rock 'n' roll star, eccentric leader of the "Sound of Mu" band and the future star of Taxi Blues , Pyotr Mamonov), when one of them stabs him in a deserted park.
"My film is really about friends who got together to have fun, while playing in filmmaking." What could have been a quote from Godard or Fassbinder is in fact a remark from Rashid Nugmanov. The Needle is indeed neither about drugs nor about a generation of Soviet youth, lost between the East and West, communism and capitalism, cynicism and romanticism (though its poignant tone hints on the latter). The film's essence emerges from the director's manipulation of various cultural stereotypes rather than social or psychological problems. The picture is dedicated "to the Soviet television"—an ironic show of Nugmanov's trendy obsession with media technology (he likes filling the screen with television screens). In a nod to the Jackie Chan cult, the epilogue plays the outtakes of the action sequences. An inventive predecessor of Pulp Fiction, The Needle weaves its soundtrack out of the Soviet "surfer music" from the 1950s. Every twist of the narrative is "forewarned" by a syrupy voice-over in a manner suggestive of a children's program a la "Sesame Street." On top of all this, the film, made by an ethnic Kazakh who never learned Kazakh and starring a Soviet-Korean from St. Petersburg, speaks in various tongues—Kazakh, Russian, Italian, German, and English—which creates the image of a Tower-of-Babel-like world, maybe facing a similar future.
Yet The Needle works best when it plays on the popular image of its star and the genre scenarios it provides. Viktor Tsoi, who followed the tracks of James Dean and Wajda's early protagonist Zbigniew Cybulski when he drove into a tree and into untimely, mythical immortality in 1990, was cultivated in the Soviet pop scene as "the last romantic." That is why and how he was cast in The Needle. Tsoi's romanticism was that of a generation which skipped Byron and Schiller and went straight for Clint Eastwood. It was an ersatz romanticism which could neither admit to nor accept its own secondariness—precisely what made it so unique and attractive in the context of the "tired culture" of remakes and references. In parallel with the Kazakh filmmakers, and indeed unbeknownst to them, the Hong Kong auteurs , especially John Woo, were exercising the same kind of romanticism—violent, stylized, extravagant. Its generic constituents—in The Needle, or in Woo's Killer and Hard-Boiled —are hard to miss: a trenchcoat (both in Alma-Ata and Hong Kong the weather suggests rather a t-shirt); sunglasses, reflecting a gunwielding opponent; a cigarette, hanging in the corner of a mouth, its smoke not obstructing the view of a target; a wet sidewalk at night; a bluesy score; and a doomed romance—but where Rashid Nugmanov, educated behind the iron curtain, learned the art of cool remains a mystery. Whatever the source of his inspiration— smuggled comic strips or, more likely, Godard with his love/hate relationship with American pop culture and happy sensibility of the "poor cinema"— The Needle stands proudly on its own. That its promise of a new filmic language was never quite realized makes it no less appealing.