`Cuckoo' flies all over map

Film's approach feels very segmented

October 24, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Cuckoo, set near the end of the Second World War, resembles one of those post-Civil War Westerns in which a Yank, a Rebel and a spunky pioneer woman form an unconventional union - except in this case, the soldiers are Finnish (Ville Haapasalo) and Russian (Viktor Bychkov), the earthy widow is a Lapp (Anni-Kristiina Juuso), and instead of gratifying action, we get a blast of Lapland mysticism that might have played better during the counterculture.

The movie is satisfying only in bits and pieces; it's as flat and segmented as a triptych. In the first panel, the widow rescues the wounded Russian, and the Finn frees himself after being chained to a rock. It's by far the most effective portion of the movie, introducing a series of full-bodied, unstressed ironies.

The Russian has been condemned (we learn) for unorthodox thoughts just as the Finn has been bolted to a craggy spot because he tried to lay down his arms. And to give these twists another turn, Soviet planes free the Russian when they inexplicably strafe their own men, and the Finns dress their renegade sniper in a German uniform because they know the Soviets will think he's a Nazi.

The idea of planting a primal survival story in the middle of a war survival story has always been surefire, even in such fancy earlier renditions as that Lee Marvin-Toshiro Mifune-John Boorman mini-epic, Hell in the Pacific: It brings home the additional cruelty and absurdity of imposing human machinations over the natural obstacles of mortality and nature. Seeing the Finn figure out how to survive with the few personal articles left him (notably his spectacles) combines the rooting interests of POW escape films with Robinson Crusoe. The director, Alexander Rogoszhkin, coaxes his film to life patiently, like the Finn nursing a flame.

In the triptych's second panel, everyone ends up at the widow's rough-hewn reindeer ranch. The film becomes a Babel-ing comedy, as the befuddled soldiers and the randy lady discover they have no shared language. They stumble toward fraternal and sexual linkages via half-understood facial expressions (quizzicality, yearning) and vocal undertones (threat, generosity and desire). The sketch-humor aspect of this section is engaging; the unfolding explanation of how the men ended up where they are lends an effective serious counterpoint.

Yet the parallels and missed connections pile up too neatly. The Finn, for example, is a literature-loving student who spouts authors and titles like Leo Tolstoy and War and Peace to the uncomprehending Russian, who turns out to be a self-taught poet.

In the triptych's third panel, after the men come to a wary near-understanding, a military mishap results in a near-fatal shooting, and a long paranormal sequence that makes communication with the clinically dead appear as easy as paddling a hand-drum and barking in the victim's ear. We learn that the cuckoo refers both to the loose-cannon Finnish sniper and the widow, whose family called her Cuckoo. After the hard-edged comedy preceding it, the Family of Man ending is for the birds.

The Cuckoo

Starring Ville Haapasalo, Anni-Kristiina Juuso and Viktor Bychkov

Directed by Alexander Rogozhkin

Rated PG-13

Released by Sony Pictures Classics

Time 99 minutes

Sun Score **1/2

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