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yuma - posterPiotr Mularuk‘s Yuma was the only foreign film I saw at the Indianapolis Film Fest this year. A Polish film directed by Piotr Mularuk, Yuma is a mix between a gangster film and a western set in the border area of Poland near Germany. Exactly. So you can imagine the genre conventions at play in this one.

Yuma follows the exploits of one Zyga (Jakub Gierszal), a malcontent who wiles his days away aimlessly with his friend Rysio (Kazimierz Mazur). When they are out one day, Rysio decides to petition a prostitute for a little fun. After their deed is done, Rysio comes tearing ass back to the car and tells Zyga to punch it. When he reveals that he hasn’t paid the prostitute, Zyga stops and tells Rysio he has to go back and pay her. Wrong move on his part. The prostitute’s pimps/muscle, led by Opat, come out of the woodwork and confront the boys, ousting them from their car, taking them to remote location where, despite the offer of the money the prostitute was originally supposed to get, they force Rysio to perform oral sex on Zyga to make up for their attempt at betrayal.

Flash forward to a couple of years later. The Wall has fallen. Zyga has a new crew consisting of Bullet (Krzysztof Skonieczny), Hammer (Jakub Kamienski) and Cupcake (Helena Sujecka).

Zyga and the crew.

Zyga and the crew.

When they are playing around, Zyga tries to run after one of his friends and his shitty Eastern Bloc communist-made shoe splits. Leaving him with nothing to wear. He decides then that he needs to do something to better his situation. Lucky for him, his aunt Halinka (Katarzyna Figura) is a player in the black market and needs help.

Halinka, the black marketeer.

Halinka, the black marketeer.

When she sends him across the border into Germany to procure goods for her, Zyga finds his calling. As he meanders in and out of the shops in Germany, he finds that it is easy to just take what he wants, being inconspicuous of course. For his troubles, he takes himself a yellow, western styled jacket, red and black cowboy boots and new jeans. When he returns, he sticks out like a sore thumb, but his confidence is soaring. He feels alive having just raided the border town like a Polish Jesse James.

I got these for you...and it's so easy, we should all do it.

I got these for you…and it’s so easy, we should all do it.

He is clearly changed by this activity and when he brings actual Adidas shoes back to his friends, the game is changed for all of them. Amazed by the sight of the shoes (who knew something so little could be such a grand gesture?), the three others join in the operation and form a band of merry men, so to speak, and loot the border towns of their goods and bring them back to their little town to sell to the others, much to the chagrin of Halinka, who runs her black market, strip club and brothel operation out of the back of her house…with the blessing of the local officials.

 After the pilfer...

Before the pilfer…ready to hit it big.

So as Zyga and company become bigger and bigger in town, breezing through the border with the help of the guards who task the kids with bringing them goods as well, he brings more attention on himself. His mother, who once warned him of working with his aunt, now openly accepts the gifts he brings back. His aunt has cozied up to Zyga in a way that is likely more taboo than not. And through all of this, Zyga seems to be doing this cowboy shit to catch the eye of a woman named Majka (Karolina Chapko) who helped him hide a defector from East Germany and get him to the West German Consulate. But she seems to want nothing to do with him despite his efforts. His attraction to Majka blinds him to the fact that Cupcake is in love with him.

Majka, the apple of Zyga's eye.

Majka, the apple of Zyga’s eye.

And in the middle of his ascent, Rysio comes back to town now a police officer who is determined to stop the activities of Zyga and his crew. But Zyga and his friends believe they are above the law, and in fact, pretty much operate that way. After he and Halinka cozy up to one another in a sexual way, they turn her home operation into a wild western-type saloon called El Dorado and Zyga sits at the table of power.

Zyga the Godfather.

Zyga the Godfather.

That is until Opat returns to town and he starts exercising his authority, flexing his muscles over Zyga and Halinka as well. And all of it blows up when a brawl breaks out in El Dorado burning it down. When Rysio hears who is responsible, he goes after Opat. When Zyga finds him, we get another flashback to the day that they were together and Rysio tried to flee without paying the prostitute. It turns out that Zyga too, had to perform oral sex on Rysio as punishment as well. He better compartmentalized what happened, but Rysio never got over it. It has clearly affected his life. So he traps Opat in an old missile silo (where we saw a younger Opat earlier in the film with his army regiment before being shipped out to Afghanistan to fight with the Russians after their invasion back in 1979 which lasted until 1988), where it is filled with gas and other incendiaries. As you might gather, the film has an explosive ending.

So that’s the long and short of the plot. This film was confusing as its attempts to meld the western with the gangster film just muddled the narrative, the expectations from both types of films not meshing well. Zyga isn’t a terribly sympathetic character and at first you might be rooting for him and his crew, their spiral into lawlessness renders that sympathy null and void by about half way through the film. The overriding issue is there really is no antagonist except in the few scenes when Opat is around. There is no mention of economic instability. The town where they are resembles the town in Napoleon Dynamite where everyone just seems about 10 year in the past with regards to fashion and style. The Majka storyline appears throughout the film, but the way it is resolved is confusing and really doesn’t make any sense as we are never sure what exactly happens to her. We can surmise, but there is no reference at all to it. There are some laughs to be had, which lighten the mood and make for a more enjoyable watch, but they are not enough to overcome the faults in the narrative and the genres it tries to turn on their heads by combining the two. I will say that the inclusion of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” was quite priceless. The photography was one of the film’s strong points and really captured the primitive nature of Poland as it transitioned from communism to its more democratic form of government in place now.

In summation, it was a fair film, but I don’t think it lived up to its aspirations.

Here’s the trailer: