Studio: Columbia TriStar Home Video
U.S. Rating: PG-13
Canadian Rating: PG
Rated for sexual content and violence
Film Length: 103 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 widescreen enhanced
Audio: Russian, Finnish, Lapp Mix Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
Release Date: NOW
Humans are thought of being more advanced than other mammals because of their development of language. Man's ability to communicate with one another brought about rapid cultural change and proliferating ideas in all spaces of Earth occupied by man. People gathered together for safety and for a common goal of survival in a world that would be otherwise a brutish and short life if living alone. The dangers of nature and other men threatening a small society were waning as cultural assimilation and government became as societies grew. Of course, making bigger societies weren't without sacrifices.
Today's globalization still cannot cause the world to fold into a single ethnicity. Humans pride themselves on being diverse and being different from one another. At the same time, cultures clash and cause conflict. Many times this leads to open war. History has seen it, and new societies are built from the aftermath and people from different cultures must learn to adapt in their new shared environment. Language can be a barrier for some and they must learn to communicate. Sometimes there is an understanding, and the rest is misunderstood. They may dislike each other based on the values taught by family or by state. Take World War II for an example, where people who were once friends became enemies because of a change of belief in the government's ideology. So many people warred over it, and many people died as the soldiers on the front were trained to kill. Many soldiers didn't want to be there nor knew really why they were involved other than because they were told to. But those who weren't allies were the enemy, and the only mercy for the enemy was death.
The story of The Cuckoo is in the open and mountainous Russian landscape. A Finn sniper named Veiko (Ville Haapasalo) is sentenced to death by being chained to a rock. His crime was for not wanting to carry out instructions from his own army because of his reluctance in battle. Veiko never wanted to be in the War, he wanted to remain in his university studying. He didn't want to fight for Finland who was allied with Germany.
Enter the man we know as Kartuzov (Viktor Bychkov), or in English we will call Gerlost (the name comes from the Finn's misunderstanding). He is a Russian captain arrested by the NKVD (People's Commissariat Internal Affairs, a political police). He feels disgraced over his arrest by his motherland country he loves and protects and is taken to be judged under Article 58 (invented by Stalin to catch anybody who was felt to be guilty or suspected of anti-Soviet activities). Interestingly this article was applied to many returning Russian soldiers who were released by Axis powers. This was on the grounds that their capture and detainment was proof they were anti-soviet because they didn't fight to the death. You can assume this would leave Kartuzov with a bitter taste in his mouth. Fortunately (and unfortunately) for Kartuzov, his GPV was struck by an airplane bomb and left him wounded the officers dead.
The beautiful Anni walks into the scene (Anni-Kristiina Juuso - she's made to look like a hunchback but she's still beautiful...I'm single, Anni... ), a young Lapp widow who's seen the war's violence and the blood too often. She is a woman of traditional and nomadic Sami culture and remedies. Her husband went off to war five years ago and never returned. She stumbles upon the dead men and notices Kartuzov still alive and takes him back to her raindeer farm to nurse him better.
Veiko escapes his chains and stumbles upon her farm where she volunteers to help him. He can't understand what she is saying because she speaks Lapp and she can't understand him because he speaks Finnish. Once the Russian wakes up it is known that none of them can understand each other and it makes for amusing conversations. The Russian takes Veiko for a German because of his uniform - and accuses him of being a Fascist. Veiko defends himself telling him they wear German uniforms so they aren't shot at by the Germans. He is not a Fascist and has no urge to fight Kartuzov. Kartuzov doesn't see it that way and wants to kill him because by knowledge of opposing forces, Russia is to kill the Germans. Kartuzov's weakness from the blast thankfully prevents him from being successful.
Veiko, Kartuzov, and Anni are forced to live with each other because of their dependence on one another. Anni has lived without a man in her life for years, and her desire for a man is strong. This leads to jealously that has to be worked out. Despite which man she prefers, Anni is still taking care of both of them and both soldiers must put their national interests aside in the wilderness. Little do they know that it's September 1944, just as Finland exited the war and made peace with Russia. They have no idea they aren't enemies because in Anni's world they are just people - people who were abandoned and rejected by their own worlds. They are like nestlings on Anni's farm, and like the Cuckoo, she never raised and nursed any of her own.
This is an amazing story brought to film. I enjoyed every moment of it! This is a beautifully shot film and made me feel like I was relaxing on Anni's farm (I wish I was). At times I found it very comical watching each of them interpret what the other is saying. It reminded me of my time spent in Greece last year in my village because I had no clue what anyone was saying because I don't speak Greek. Yet, I spent all of my time with Greek-speaking people and we were forced to put our language barrier aside. I still made many friends (ok, one person did speak a little English so it helped) and had best times I will never forget. There comes a time when there is an understanding between people without words. We are talented enough to be able to read people and understand when they feel sad, lonely, happy, and loving. The characters in The Cuckoo eventually understood each other without knowing the other language. Even though these three people fought each other in principle, the lines between enemy and ally disappeared as they were forced to love each other. Anni's camp brought the peace and tranquility aiding them to survive.
This film won Best Director and Best Actor honors at the 2002 Moscow International Film Festival and Best Narrative Feature at the 2003 San Francisco International Film Festival. It is well deserved.
The most bothersome issue to me about this release is the choice to use in-player subtitling for this film. I know I complain about this all of the time with Columbia TriStar releases, the use of big fat yellow letters bothers me to no end. I can maybe justify using in-player subtitles because there are multiple language subtitles on those releases. Using it on The Cuckoo doesn't make sense at all. English is the ONLY subtitle option on this disc, so this disc isn't meant for any other language. Why the English-subtitled master print wasn't used for this disc is beyond me. I can see if there were Russian, Finn, and Lapp subtitle options then maybe the choice of in-player subtitles would be more justifiable...but there isn't. While I watched the Theatrical Trailer on this disc and saw the English subtitles on the print it made me want to cry to have them on the film presentation.
Video Quality? /
The Cuckoo portrays various moods such as tinting the picture a cool blue at the beginning of the film to enhance the characters' feelings of betrayal, isolation, and abandonment. As we are introduced to Anni's farm it is warmer in character as Anni brings a new life back into our lost soldiers. Flesh tones appear natural in this less than colourful environment.
The film is a little softer than other films today and does have dirt specks throughout. There is a dim look to the image probably to enforce the overcast skies throughout the film. Dark scenes have deep black levels but shadow detail is lacking. While not one of the most eye-popping colourful films out there, the visuals are wonderful and very pleasing to view.
Audio Quality? /
Let me be upfront: this is one amazing soundtrack! This film has the style of a 5.1 soundtrack few films have and I wish more films would adopt. I've finally found a film with the sound done right! Ok, many of you may be saying "What the heck are you talking about? There are lots of reference soundtracks out there!" Well yes, there are a lot of good soundtracks that are very complex and have an abundant of sounds placed all around. While I might give the thumbs up to those soundtracks for creativeness and immersion there is always one spot I feel they fail - and that is in the spatial integration of ALL SOUNDS.
All films have sounds incorporated into the mix that actively represent what is on screen. The best multi-channel films have a variety of sounds playing all at once to make you, the listener, believe you are there with the characters in the film. Generally, the more activity in the mix with sounds that represent a real environment for the action on screen, the more impressed the listener is and the enjoyment of listening is heightened. After all, that is the reason we bought our home theatres and that is one of the reasons why I'm reviewing films on presentation.
Even though there are many great film soundtracks with very active sound fields and are either quiet in nature or loud and aggressive, in my mind many of them fall short to add the spatial attributes of the environment the sounds are placed in (eg. the room or the outdoor environment's reflective characteristics). It is the "sound around the sound" that is lacking in most film soundtracks. Many films do give ambient characteristics in obviously reflective environments but they are usually isolated incidents used for momentary reinforcement while the rest of the soundtrack falls to more simple sound integration. My dream soundtrack would have each sound environmentally integrated for the maximum experience in home theatre. I like to keep my hopes high! Why can't I? Isn't that part of a high fidelity experience? Most active soundtracks are enjoyable but are usually dry in spatial delineation.
The sense of space around sounds can be manufactured or captured live. It is up to the sound team to make sure it is delivered in the final product. Sometimes sounds are specific to a speaker location in the listener's room. At best, phantom sounds between speakers, or the use of other speakers to carry the sound beyond one side of your room will help reinforce the environment on screen. In a properly set up home theatre your speakers will disappear with a well recorded soundtrack when all speakers are emitting sounds that act as "one environment". Forget dipole speakers for forced spaciousness - setup and recording quality is really where the excitement lies. That is why I'm going to say the 5.1 soundtrack on The Cuckoo simply amazed me.
My reference system for film consists of five identical tower speakers, level-matched and equidistant from my listening position with no electronic delays. With this set-up, I found the Dolby Digital encoding of The Cuckoo always very spacious; there wasn't a moment in the film where all channels were not working together in unison. Every environment on screen had a convincing characteristic, and there was always something going on in the mix - from flies buzzing, and the constant sound of mild wind in the wilderness, birds in the distance - all from any side of the listening position. It gave me the impression that I really was in barren and mountainside landscape.
All sounds appeared very real to me. When Veiko tries to rid the chains from his leg it sounds very real and chains never sound upfront. Voices are always integrated perfectly and sound very natural. One of the better sound experiences of mood and voice is during chapter 24 while traveling to the land of the dead and hearing the howling of the dog. I felt as if I were in the same room as Anni, as her voice sounded very real and almost whispering in my ear. Traditional Sami instruments merged with new-age instruments made a nice sonic blend in the music score. Sidewall imaging and a rotation of sound is ever so prominent and leaves you mesmerized.
There was only one disappointment to me; I felt the sound of the overhead warplanes at the beginning of the film could have been a little louder and dynamic than they were. They sounded a tad thin to me and a little quiet. They didn't send as much reverberation into the environment as I would have expected. Of course, all of this, as with any soundtrack, comes down to what I personally believe to be real sounding based on my personal experiences in everyday environments and listening to all of the characteristics in them. There is nothing stopping you from doing that too.
I have a great appreciation for this soundtrack because of the ways it uses sounds subtly and quietly to create a sense of space. If you are looking to obvious effects that stand out to impress you then you will be disappointed. This is a very directional and very ambient soundtrack that any audiophile can appreciate.
Special Features? /
A Making Of Featurette (24m03s) is included on this disc. It is narrated by director/screenwriter Alexander Rogozhkin in his Russian tongue with English subtitles. Anni-Kristiina Juuso is the only one who speaks English on this disc. The featurette simply tells the tale of this film, talks a little about the ways of Russian filmmaking, and discusses a little about behind the scenes. Clips from interviews of the actors, music talent, and producer in interspersed throughout. The Theatrical Trailer is also included in 16:9 and DD2.0 surround, and has the English subtitles on the film print.
I thought this was a phenomenal film in both performance and sound quality. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in a good film story, and to anyone interested in a great sound experience. The Cuckoo is one of the best films I've seen recently and I can't wait to find some time to watch it again for pleasure. Absolutely recommended!