January arrives in cinemas and on digital January 27th.
Andrey Paounov is mainly known for his documentaries about political and social transitions in post-1989 Bulgaria – Georgi and the Butterflies (2004), The Mosquito Problems and Other Stories (2007) and The Boy Who Was a King (2011). With his first fictional feature, January, Paounov offers us an existential chamber piece and a metaphorical examination of the country’s unprocessed past and present in a film loosely based on Nobel Prize Nominee Yordan Radichkov’s 1974 play.
Set in a remote mountain cottage in the middle of a heavy January snowstorm, the film concerns five people whose paths cross over a mysterious disappearance. The Porter (Samuel Finzi) and The Old Man (Iossif Surchadzhiev) loiter in a cold, isolated cabin, solving crossword puzzles while pondering over a nutcracker, their only company is a caged black crow. The cottage owner Petar Motorov – who we never see – had left for the town through the woods on his sleigh early in the morning without letting the others know of his plans.
Before long, the twins (Zahary Baharov and Svetoslav Stoyanov) show up, needing Motorov’s tractor to help pull their stuck snowplough. The men then discover Motorov’s fur coat and shotgun still inside the property. Knowing the conditions outside, the four men grow increasingly agitated over Motorov’s whereabouts. As they begin whispering about the myths and legends of the ghosts who occupy the woods, they are joined by the Priest (Leonid Yovchev). Meanwhile, some unusual and unexplained events start to engulf the snow-bound cottage as Motorov’s horse and sleigh return with a frozen wolf carcass lying in the back and no sign of the owner.
January plays homage to a range of films in its atmosphere and narrative. Given the film’s world-building and heavy metaphorical and spiritual themes, as well as its slow pacing and long takes, Andrei Tarkovsky’s, Stanley Kubrick and Béla Tarr’s influences are indisputable. Tarr’s influence, in particular, stands out through the bleak and apocalyptic worldview of Eastern European misery presented through a cynical yet darkly comic lens. However, on a more contemporary level, there is an unmistakable resemblance to Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019). Here the secluded location, black and white cinematography, supernatural undertones and the slowly brewing insanity ensure both January and The Lighthouse share their love and admiration of The Shining (1980) in equal measure.
While not directly political, there are subtle hints of Bulgaria’s unprocessed past and the lingering shadow of the pre-1990s communist era as the portraits of discarded ex-communist leaders litter the cottage. Here the film’s apocalyptic, timeless and cynical set-up appears to suggest there has been little real historical and political change in the last three decades, with nothing positive to come.
On the one hand, January feels specifically Bulgarian with its explicit references to culture, traditions and folklore – many of which will go over the head of audience members unfamiliar with the country’s history. However, on the other hand, January feels like your run-of-the-mill Eastern European arthouse film with meticulous attention to detail in its decaying, dusty and run-down interiors and sense of isolation. As a result, we are left with an enticing, enthralling, yet confused winter parable where we constantly feel like we missed something important. While January is allegorical, it ultimately fails to deliver the sense of profundity it aspires to achieve.
Bulgaria | 1hr 50mins | 2021
While not directly political, there are subtle hints of Bulgaria’s unprocessed past and the lingering shadow of the pre-1990s communist era as discarded ex-communist leaders’ portraits litter the cottage. Here the film’s apocalyptic, timeless and cynical set-up appears to suggest there has been little real historical and political change in the last three decades, with nothing positive yet to come.