Forbidden desire in Siberia

Viatcheslav Koptureskiy (left) and Ilya Shubochkin (right)

Writer and director Viatcheslav Koptureskiy makes a promising feature debut with his gay drama, “Siberia and Him,” now streaming and out May 26 on DVD. 

The filmmaker stars as Sasha, a young man whose lover calls and tells him, “We have to stop this,” while also urging him not to tell anyone about their clandestine relationship. Sasha is distraught, even suicidal, but he eventually heads out to a private gay bar to drown his sorrows. While rejecting the advances of a guy who tries to pick him up, the bar is raided and Sasha (along with the other patrons) is arrested. The local cop, Dima (Ilya Shubochkin), releases Sasha because, it is revealed, he is his brother-in-law and his lover. 

Dima struggles with his same-sex desires and that conflict, along with the taboo relationship between these two men, forms the basis for this powerful film. 

Ilya Shubochkin (left) and Viatcheslav Koptureskiy (right)

The plot kicks in when Dima and Sasha are asked to go check on Sasha’s grandmother out in a remote region of Siberia. Dima’s wife Anna (Anastasiya Voskresenskaya) also asks Sasha to see if he can find out why her husband has been acting “different” lately. She rightly suspects he is having an affair; she just does not know with whom.

As the men head out on their journey, they do not talk about their relationship. The stony silence is supposed to create dramatic or sexual tension, but it feels underdeveloped. Better are the atmospheric flies that appear in many scenes, symbolizing impurity. Kopturevskiy also films the men walking or sitting far apart, to emphasize and represent the gulf between them. More effective are the gorgeous shots of the mountainous (and barren) landscapes that indicate the isolation and desolation of the characters. In addition, the filmmaker often insists on shooting his characters in intense close-up, focusing on their eyes or hands, to communicate a sense of urgency or intimacy. This technique can be distracting even if it is meant to reveal what the characters are expressing without dialogue.

“Siberia and Him” — the “him” of the title is ambiguous as the film presents both Sasha and Dima’s stories independently — picks up some interest once the guys spend an overnight in a woman’s house. They share a sauna and Dima expresses some of his thoughts and feelings. While each man’s pent-up emotions are palpable, the need to contain their desires causes them some real frustration.

Kopturevskiy’s film improves as it goes along. Even though it runs a brief 78 minutes, “Siberia and Him” requires some patience. It is around the film’s midpoint, when Dima and Sasha camp out one night and they have a fight, that they finally give in to their passions and have sex. Their lovemaking is rough, not sensual; just like their relationship feels more like a struggle than something satisfying. That these men cannot be comfortable in each other’s arms — except when they are alone together in the middle of nowhere — is telling. When Dima tenderly recalls his first encounter with Sasha, the men acknowledge the difficulty of their forbidden attraction. 

Soon the guys arrive at Sasha’s grandmother’s house, and this episode has some warmth, even as grandma perceives there is an issue between Dima and Anna. As the lovers talk about their future in hushed tones in bed at night, “Siberia and Him” sets up its finale, and what will happen when the men return home.

On their return trip, Kopturevskiy drops a bombshell that detonates. Sasha and Dima have an exchange that alters the course of their relationship and the film. It is best not to reveal what happens, but it will prompt viewers to reevaluate much of what has occurred. It’s a canny, daring move, but it pays off.

“Siberia and Him” benefits from the strong internal performances by the two leads. Kopturevskiy plays Sasha as a moody young man whose depression stems from his inability to live authentically. His rapport with Dima is often appropriately icy, belying the on-again, off-again nature of their secret relationship. The emotional toll for Sasha gives the film its strength. 

As Dima, Ilya Shubochkin portrays the internal conflict of being a closeted man with body language that expresses his guilt and despair. His early stoicism gives way to a much more fragile sense of anguish, and the actor conveys his turmoil well. He is absolutely transparent lying in bed, with either Sasha or Anna, his eyes open, thinking about what to do. 

“Siberia and Him” is certainly not a happy film, and the characters are scared, sad and self-loathing. But Kopturevskiy’s film shines a necessary light on this corner of the world where gay (or bisexual) men eke out lives without much hope.

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