Treasure City arrives on digital platforms Friday 18th June 2021
Making a film with the premise of portraying, with specificity, the atmosphere and culture of a particular country is always tricky. Inevitably, many small details, references or jokes could quickly go over the heads of foreign audiences. Szabolcs Hajdu has become one of the last two decades’ most prominent independent Hungarian filmmakers; he has made a name for himself in the industry by capturing the often miserable, almost stereotypical Eastern European reality of Hungary’s past and present. While simultaneously managing to target wider audiences and gain international acclaim. His latest film, the ironically titled Treasure City (although the Hungarian title translates to “Peacetime”), employs an anthology format to capture the vibe of one night in a Hungarian city through several intersecting stories of almost two dozen characters.
Treasure City explores dominance and vulnerability through a range of relationships. While also balancing a narrative that sits between naturalism and magical realism. Here, we explore one night in an unnamed city through the eyes of several different groups of people, each holding a diversity of problems. While the film was shot in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, it is relatively apparent it takes place in Budapest.
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Here, we have a political activist mother (Orsolya Török-Illyés) organising a protest to stand up for free education, yet unable to communicate with her runaway daughter (Lujza Hajdu). A protestant priest (Szabolcs Hajdu) engaged in a seemingly unresolvable disagreement of views with his wife (Nóra Földeáki) and rebellious punk son (Ábel Krokovay). Meanwhile, a young and naive actress (Fanni Wrochna) shares a taxi ride with a famous theatre director (Árpád Schilling). Finally, a middle-aged actor (Domokos Szabó) and his wife (Lilla Sárosdi) sink into a marital crisis; their preteen daughter (Magdó Pálfi) silently suffering. Our stories are loosely connected via small intersecting scenes and a taxi driver.
Visually the film is heavily reminiscent of the postmodern cinema of the 1980s and 90s. The frequent use of neon lights, surreal locations and music create a Lynchian atmosphere, an almost Eastern European Blue Velvet. However, all this is presented through a lens of self-awareness and dark humour, which lightens the film’s overall tone. This is reminiscent of Robert Altman as it explores themes through character interaction rather than the depths of the plot, indirectly criticising society through a satiric tone. Hajdu is no stranger to homages: his previous film, It’s Not the Time of My Life (Ernelláék Farkaséknál), reflected the vérité style; filmed in the director’s own home while casting friends and family; reminiscent of John Cassavetes.
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However, It is the films of Jim Jarmusch that Treasure City most resembles, not only through the similarly fragmented narrative and magical realism of Mystery Train (1989) and Night on Earth (1991) but also in the way both directors seem to have a distinctively askance conception of their home countries. Of course, this may also be due to Jim Stark, Jarmusch’s frequent producer, providing finance for the film.
While it explores marriages, friendships, and parent/child relationships, Treasure City is essentially about citizen and state relationships, creating a distorted mirror that makes us face the absurdity of Hungarian daily life. As a result, Treasure City also becomes one of the most critical movies of the current Hungarian government we have seen in years.
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Treasure City’s most significant power comes from the fact that it dares to be critical, not shying away from commenting on many current political and social issues in Hungary. The revision of the Hungarian Film Fund in 2011 has undoubtedly gained some international acclaim through post-2010 Hungarian cinema, including Son of Saul (Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, 2016), Sing (Best Live Action Short Film Oscar, 2017), and On Body and Soul among others. These films have remained free from governmental interference, almost a miracle in a country where the government owns most media outlets. While at the same time, the Government is regularly criticised internationally for violations of freedom of speech and restrictive laws.
The constant background noise of radios or tv channels throughout the film keeps informing us in an alerting tone about the threats migrants pose to Hungary. Like an ironic take on Big Brother from Orwell’s 1984, it’s everywhere: in the home, car, workplace and restaurant; we can’t escape it. However, the sad truth is that the excessive use of the “migrant-danger” message is not an over-the-top exaggeration from Hajdu used to make an anti-government point; it is the harsh reality of Hungary’s pro-government news coverage as it forces its propaganda onto the nation through any channel available.
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The film is not only a political criticism but a societal one as well. The stories have an evident generational gap as every episode has an adult, child or youth perspective. While the adults all seem to be leading miserable and frustrated lives where verbal aggression is common, the younger ones just stand by, witnessing the events mostly in silence. We know they are the ones with the opportunity to change the course of history eventually, but the unanswerable question is always: are they aware of that?
Meanwhile, the film points out how hate speeches and government propaganda slowly infiltrate our everyday lives, often without us noticing it—ruining relationships on every level while going far beyond political campaigns. This is possibly best captured in the flower shop episode. Here the shop assistant and the customer’s minor disagreement turns into a physical fight in mere seconds, with nothing but embarrassment left in its wake. It is a dark and foreboding vision of where the country is heading, only further emphasised by the final scene of a taxi cab unable to escape a never-ending roundabout.
Another risque topic covered, albeit subtly, is the ongoing demonstration for free education. Here, Orsolya Török-Illyés, the wife of director Szabolcs Hajdu plays a protester who clashes with the police. While never explicitly mentioned, this protest clearly relates to the heated political disagreements surrounding CEU University. Here Hungary’s right-wing government claimed the institution planned to destroy Europe with its inherently liberal values. These scenes also find relevance in the recent #freeSZFE movement, where students rejected a new government-appointed board that could undermine their school’s autonomy. Even though these events happened months after Treasure City’s initial Hungarian release, they play into the broader themes presented.
However, the hardest-to-watch episode sees Fanni Wrochna’s aspiring actress and Árpád Schilling’s slimy theatre director take a taxi ride. The scene clearly references the #MeToo movement and the László Marton case of October 2017. Here Marton, a well-known theatre director, found himself accused by actress Lilla Sárosdi of sexual harassment and assault, with her accusations quickly followed by others. The result was one of the most prominent # MeToo cases in Hungary.
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The film’s biggest virtue is capturing the often insane or even disturbing but quintessentially Hungarian way of life, portraying everyday situations that might (and will) seem like an over-the-top exaggeration to non-Hungarians. Yet, for anyone unfamiliar with Hungarian politics or its ongoing social issues, this may prove to be the movie’s downfall.
While the anthology format is a great creative choice for gathering together a range of characters and stories, the form does not allow enough screen time for us to care about each story deeply. Disappointingly, most of the characters feel like stock images that are there to portray a generic issue. And while we may identify with the social problems at the heart of their story, the characters themselves often feel hollow. Equally, the short stories often feel too loosely connected, occasionally creating a sense of disconnect. Meanwhile, the introduction of magic in the final scene also feels strange as it essentially takes away from the naturalism built throughout the film.
Given Hajdu’s previous films and his signature themes of realistic psychological human drama (e.g. White Palms, 2006 and It’s Not the Time of My Life, 2016), the resulting film occasionally feels dissatisfying. However, to date, Treasure City is also Hajdu’s most personal film, a visual political statement targeting a specific and small audience. And while at times limited, it is undoubtedly a breath of fresh air as it dares to challenge and reflect the state of current Hungarian society and politics.