Imagine 2010: LIFE AND DEATH OF A PORNO GANG Review

(Warning: this article can be considered NSFW, especially if you run the trailer that is embedded in it...) 

Is Serbia about to become the new Korea?

The question seems preposterous but a close look at recent festivals reveals a surprising number of hard-hitting genre films which are either gobsmackingly beautiful (like "Tears For Sale") or painfully shocking (like "A Serbian Film"). Films where creators are constantly able and willing to "think out-of-the-box", without forgetting to couple strong content to a strong message. And even the last time a Serbian movie did not manage to enthrall me (which was "Devil's Town") I could not deny that it looked competently made with pleasing production values.

So with that in mind I went to see "Life and Death of a Porno Gang" at the Imagine Festival in Amsterdam. And guess what? It's again a pretty strong film, shocking, funny and surprisingly well-made for all of its grungyness...

 

 

The Story:
It's 2001 during the final days of Milosevic' government. Film student Marko dreams of creating socially relevant science fiction horror movies, but can't get producers interested in financing him. Looking for investors he stumbles into the sordid world of the mob-owned Serbian porn industry and soon lands a job as an adult film director. But when he squanders some of his producer's money on a socially relevant science fiction horror porn movie, Marko needs to leave Belgrade in a hurry.

Unperturbed, Marko and his girlfriend buy a van and rustle up a few available porn actors. Some are overweight, some are suffering from AIDS, and some are addicted to heroin, but beggars can't be choosers. As "Porno Gang" they start touring the backward peasant villages in Serbia with a live cabaret, pretentiously trying to educate the farmers on political issues using radical pornographic satirical sketches.

Surprisingly this plan is not as financially successful as imagined: the poor population has little money (and even less patience) to spend on this "art" so the few smiles they gather are often accompanied by a pitchfork-wielding lynchmob to drive the "Porno Gang" out of town the next day.

Unable to return to Belgrade, things look increasingly desperate for the group who barely earn enough money to buy food. But then Marko meets a German producer of snuff movies, who makes him an offer he can't refuse...
 

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The Movie:
A couple of years ago director Mladen Djordevic made a documentary about the Serbian porn movie industry called "Made In Serbia". And even though "Life and Death of a Porno Gang" is not a documentary, he calls it a straight sequel because "Made In Serbia" was such a huge inspiration for it. Much of the film does indeed look like a documentary, featuring handheld cameras and natural lighting. It all adds to the grungy atmosphere of the film and the bleak surroundings in which the outlandish story takes place.

And outlandish it is: people doubting the authenticity of it all get handed some solid proof of the director's whimsical handling of reality when the "Porno Gang" comes across a radioactively polluted village, complete with cows that glow green in the dark. 

But Mladen Djordjevic' vérité style of filming manages to win you over after a while and instead of looking like a badly made holiday video, the image is often filled with clever visuals. It also means that the characters in the "Porno Gang" have to come to life through the quality of the performances, rather than through flashy camera tricks.

This might be Mladen's biggest achievement here: despite the freakishness of the "Porno Gang" performers and the inclusion of a wild variety of extreme actions (accompanied by extreme images) these characters still manage to grow on you. In the second half of the movie when the "Porno Gang" starts to lose members you know each and every one of them and... well, you sort-of miss them when they're gone. For me it speaks volumes that, days after seeing the film, I'm able to read the castlist on IMDB without a single picture attached and still can remember the face of each and every character on that list, and also what happened to that person throughout the movie.

It helps that the acting is uniformly good. Mladen Djordjevic toyed with the idea of using the real porn actors featured in "Made In Serbia", but quickly that idea was discarded because (according to what he said during the Q&A) those people could
A: not act well enough for the dramatic parts of the film and
B: were extremely unreliable.
Real actors and film students were used instead and it shows, with a standout performance for Mihajlo Jovanovic who plays Marko. His character in the movie is charismatic and good-looking, but also arrogant, unbelievably full of himself and comically pretentious about everything he does with the "Porno Gang".  

Things go right? It's because of his brilliance. Things go wrong? The world is not ready yet for his radical visions.

This logic means that Marko in his own mind never fails, and it forms a trap from which escape is almost impossible. And Mihajlo Jovanovic shows that, yet you always see a nagging self-doubt lurking not far behind. Jovanovic truly gives a magnificent performance here.

Still, before you think this is a comedy-drama for the masses, do consider that things get dirty and rough in this movie. VERY dirty and rough. And instead of confronting you with extreme images right away, Djordjevic eases you in slowly. The first pornographic material in the film is pretty softcore, with people always standing in the way of the action, like a grubbier version of the US cut of "Eyes Wide Shut" (or "Austin Powers", for that matter). But then, suddenly: BAM! A hardcore insert of half a second, gone before it properly registered, undoubtedly leftovers from Mladen's earlier porn doc. At the screening I attended you could see the whole audience going "HUH??". And more follow. Things later get pretty gruesome too, so be warned.

But the thing is, the images do support a story. In the film you also see (or hear) eyewitness accounts of terrible atrocities performed during Serbia's recent genocidal civil wars, and it's almost as if Mladen Djordjevic dares you to become outraged at the sex and violence in his film, while it is so obviously peanuts when compared to what actually happened in the background. And he is also quick to point out that Western media were almost insatiable for shocking material coming from the Yugoslavian wars.

In the end "Life and Death of a Porno Gang" comes together impressively and fulfills most of its ambitions (unless I missed some). It's funny, it's shocking, and it makes you think without hammering its message home.

   
Conclusion:
This could so easily have been an easy shockfest full of extreme sex and extreme violence, cheaply shot by a couple of hicks just for the hell of it. But it isn't. This is a very well-made clever bit of filmmaking which features a multi-layered story, fine acting by all involved and some biting satire aimed both at Serbia and the rest of the world.

Not for the squeamish (although I cannot imagine this will come as a surprise) but nevertheless highly recommended.

Audiences in Amsterdam apparently thought the same thing, and rated the film 7.1 out of 10, which (let's face it) is pretty damn high for a film with hardcore inserts.

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