The Red Flute (1989)


The alternate title for The Red Flute is Mest, which is Russian for “revenge.”  It’s a much more explicit title, but it’s also only one facet of what this film is about.

It’s like calling a movie about Catholicism, “pew.”

This film is about… well it’s mostly about a kid named Sungu as he grows from an infant to a young man, near death, but he’s never in control, so it doesn’t feel like his story.

In 1915, there is a man named Jan who works for a man named Caj.  He believes he is mistreated, as evidenced by Caj’s wife telling him he’s not allowed in the house anymore.  So Jan, a servant of some kind, sleeps in the barn, wrapping himself in hay and sobbing as he tries to sleep through the cold.  The next day he is teaching a class of children in that same barn.  One of them is a young girl, Caj’s daughter.

The girl isn’t paying attention to Jan so Jan gets mad.  He tells her “I’m not allowed to hurt you because your Caj’s daughter.”  It’s very clear what the power structure is here.  Then Jan gets a hooked knife and stalks her offscreen.  While we are protected from the probable gore, the camera lingers on the rest of the children as they cower in fear, like children protecting themselves in a classroom during an earthquake.

Caj, realizing what he’s done, drops the knife and staggers out of the barn.  The other children slowly get up and begin to make their way towards the girl’s body.  We cut away to Caj’s wife mourning her daughter and informing Caj.

Caj decides he must kill Jan, so he follows him to China in a long journey that only takes a few seconds of screen time.  Having finally found Jan, Caj realizes he can’t kill him.  A man restrains Caj and tells him he must not kill.

So Caj returns home, distraught.  His wife tells him she’ll find Caj a concubine as she is too old to bear him any more children.  Through his concubine Nemaje, Sungu is born.

We watch Sungu grow up, and for a moment we forget about Jan.  That is until Caj lies on his death bed and tells Sungu what his purpose is, to find and kill Jan and seek revenge.

In response to this news, Sungu goes to sit outside the family house for an entire year.  Then one day Jan, ever the egotistical maniac, shows up to gloat about his murder.  Caj’s wife sees him and falls to her knees as if she can’t do anything about it.  She tells Sungu to never forget Jan’s face as he is the man Sungu must someday kill.

Sungu sits there passively, observing but not interfering.

As he gets older, Sungu works as a house builder somewhere in Russia or Romania.  He even meets an attractive woman for whom he builds a house, free of charge.  When she tempts him into bedding her, Sungu realizes he’s bleeding.  This might be the most gory scene simply because of how shocking it is.  Everything seems to play out in slow motion, first the woman’s horrified expression and then Sungu’s shame.

So Sungu leaves town and remembers that his true mission is to kill Jan.  Sungu tracks down Jan to a house in the film’s climactic moment.  On the edge of death due to an unknown but apparently genetic illness, Sungu staggers into the house with the same knife Jan used to kill Caj’s daughter.  The house is drenched in ominous, red light like that of hell, really undercutting the alleged “justice” of what Sungu is about to do.

But he doesn’t find Jan.  Instead he finds an extremely old and frail woman: Caj’s wife.  She tends to Sungu’s illness and tells him that Jan died a year earlier.  Sungu laments that he wasn’t able to carry out his vengeance, and she lets him know that Jan did suffer because he lived in constant fear that Sungu would hunt him down.

Ultimately Jan died while asleep and drunk in a pile of hay in a small barn when a burning rat, lit on fire by some cruel, cruel children, ran in and the barn became engulfed in flames.

So what the hell was all that?

The film often jumps forward in time and pretty far ahead in time, too.  Ultimately the pain of one event survives 40 or 50 years, despite Sungu having no involvement in the initial crime.

Sungu only exists for revenge so in that sense he doesn’t need to wonder, he knows what his purpose is.  Similarly, throughout the film there is a traveling monk who seems to know clearly what he is meant to do.  He comes across a woman and tells her she is sick and dying and must come with him and then marry a disgusting man (Jan) because that is just what she must do.  So she does it.  She never has any hand in the plot, instead she simply observes Jan acting rudely.  This woman doesn’t appear troubled in any way, however.

The plot ends with Caj’s wife dying, presumably from old, old, old age.  Sungu sits on a beach, like he’s the turtle at the beginning of the film, and he observes.

The movie starts with an old, wrinkled turtle crawling slowly through tall grass.  Two men speculate on how the turtle knows where to go, and the other says he’s moving towards the ocean.  It’s what turtles do, it’s their purpose.  The other then says “but what of man’s purpose.”  So this movie is about purpose and why we exist.

Then we glimpse an arrogant prince with his entourage of feudal “yes men.”  He also has a friendly poet who explains that he is uninspired living within the walls of the prince’s kingdom, so he asks to leave.  The prince says sure, “but I never want to see you again.”

Then the film ends with two women, also on a beach, coming to the realization that nothing matters.  One woman drops her basket (of fruit?) and throws her hands up in the air.

So “revenge” and to an extent the concept of having a purpose, is a little ridiculous, or at least putting too much faith into this line of thinking can leave you feeling empty, because we don’t have a purpose.

The characters who are most peaceful and most knowledgeable serve a purpose, but it seems like they don’t care whether they do or not.  The traveling monk who tells the girl she will marry Jan even gives her the option.  He says she’s going to die soon so she can stay with her family, but due to her imminent death there’s no real point in staying because they will have to say goodbye to her regardless, or she can marry this guy.  It’s like the monk is playing a game because he holds power and can order people around in a passive way.

The emotional crux of the film is Sungu’s realization that everything he believed was true is not, and he remembers the good times with his mother, Nemaje the concubine.  He remembers how she cared for him as a child, and jeez, I don’t know.  She served a purpose, right?  I mean, she was ordered to give Caj a son and she did!  It could’ve been a girl but it was a boy.

So she did her thing, but she was so emotionally involved with her child, as would be expected and hoped for, that she transcended her “purpose.”  God, I’ve used the word “purpose” too many times in this write up.  17 so far, to be exact.

So Sungu, I believe, realizes there is joy in this life despite there being no real reason for any of it.  It all just happens.

I mean, the traveling monk instructs the woman to marry Jan and that’s no fun for her, it’s no fun for anyone.  It doesn’t even matter.  She can’t give him any children and Jan just dies in a fire and she vanishes.  We’re not sure where she went, but she probably died because everyone dies of old age or sickness in this movie.

So maybe the monk is just toying with her.  When we see him earlier he interacts with Sungu so it seems like this monk just goes around and talks to everyone.  He’s all knowing, and he has a sense of humor.  He’s kind of detached from everything and okay with it all, which, I guess that’s how we’re all supposed to feel.  But the monk just sort of messes with people.

It’s like the kids at the end who light the rat on fire.  Poor rat.  It scurries away and that’s how Jan dies, as we’ve established, but these kids are like the monk.  The kids are to the burning rat what the monk is to the people he comes across.  The kids are in control in this moment and they don’t care, they just watch the rat burn.

There are multiple instances of animals appearing in this film.  Beyond the turtle in the very first shot, we glimpse hedgehogs running around, enough so that the characters wonder why there are so many.  We even get a scene in which Sungu’s Russian friend offers him a dead goose after Sungu says it’s tradition for a husband and wife to get a goose on the night of their wedding.  Then they leave the dead goose behind, and we get a shot of a dog terrorizing the goose which is now alive.  Nothing is as it is!  I don’t know what the goose means.  I’ve been trying to figure it out, god I’m terrible at analyzing films.  WHAT DOES THE GOOSE MEAN?

Did they just not notice the goose isn’t dead?  I mean, the Russian guy basically manhandled it so he must’ve known.  No, the goose was dead.  It was definitely dead, but then it came back to life only to be terrorized and probably killed by the dog.

So I choose to see this as a symbol for Sungu: at that point in his life he had left home and everything he knew.  He was in a different culture, and he had a new life.  He was reborn.  Whereas before he seemed to be in a vegetative state after learning that he only existed for murder, like some sort of Jason Bourne agent of death, he has now left it behind and embraced his own life.  He is a human after all, and he should live his own life, not murder because his old father (WHO COULDN’T KILL BECAUSE HE KNEW IT’S WRONG) told him to kill some guy he never knew.

And after the dead/not dead goose scene, Sungu builds a pretty a woman a nice house.  He’s building, growing, promoting life which is not why he was born.  He has a chance to break the mold, but then he gets the same exact illness that killed his father.  So like the goose coming back to life only to be attacked by the dog, Sungu has come back to life only to be brought back down by the illness and his father’s dying wishes.

That’s what the goose means.

Damn, this film is like an ice cream cone, but instead of being dipped in delicious fudge, it’s dipped in philosophy and the question of man’s purpose.

The Red Flute was written by Anatoli Kim and directed by Yermek Shinarbayev.



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