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 most prominent independent Hungarian filmmakers of the last two decades. 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 at the same time 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 (while the film was shot in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, it is fairly obvious it takes place in Budapest) through the eyes of several different groups of people each holding a diversity of problems.
Here, we have a political activist mother (Orsolya Török-Illyés) organizing 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. Each of our stories 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. Here, the frequent use of neon lights, surreal locations and music create a Lynchian atmosphere, an almost Eastern European Blue Velvet. The overnight setting and dark tones undoubtedly match the hopelessness and frustration that hold the episodes together. However, all this is presented through a lens of self-awareness and dark humour, which lightens up 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.
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 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. Consequently, 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 political and social issues currently relevant 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 at an international level for violations of freedom of speech and restrictive laws.
There is a constant background noise of radios or tv channels throughout the film that 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. The situation’s absurdity peaks as news rings out as one of the characters is about to have sex with a prostitute. 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. Alas, this is the harsh reality of Hungary’s pro-government news coverage as it forces its propaganda onto the nation through any channel available.
The film is not only a political criticism but a societal one as well. There is an evident generational gap in the stories as every episode has an adult, child or youths 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 there: are they aware of that?
Meanwhile, the film tries to point 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. The shop assistant and the customer’s minor disagreement turning 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, it is clear this protest relates to the heated political disagreements surrounding CEU University. With Hungary’s right-wing government claiming it to be an institution that plans to destroy Europe with its inherently liberal values. But, this scene also finds relevance in the recent #freeSZFE movement, with students rejecting a new government-appointed board that could undermine their school’s autonomy. And 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 is a clear reference to the #MeToo movement. Here, Hajdu boldly references the László Marton case of October 2017. Marton, a well-known theatre director, found himself accused by actress Lilla Sárosdi of sexual harassment and assault. Her accusations quickly followed by others. The result one of the largest #MeToo inspired cases in Hungary.
The film’s biggest virtue is how it’s able to capture 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 not familiar with Hungarian politics or its ongoing social issues, this may well also prove to be the movie’s downfall; the film not feeling as authentic as it is, seeming like a more outlandish and dystopian vision to an international audience.
While the anthology format is a great creative choice in gathering together a range of characters and stories, the format 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 issues 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, Treasure City is also Hajdu’s most personal film to date, 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.