Emir Kusturica's Underground

The Film From A Forgotten Country

By Joey Liang

Screams, gunshots, betrayal, and a monkey driving a tank. This is Underground, one of the last films from a country that no longer exists - Yugoslavia. 

Being a diehard fan of magical realism, Underground must be my favourite piece of work from the genre, if not my favourite work of all time. However, it hadn't been on my mind for a long time. It was only when I finished the book “The House of the Spirits” by I. Allende recently that I sensed something similar... deep within.

The movie follows the story of three ‘wars’ that changed Yugoslavia forever; World War II, the Cold War and the Yugoslavian Civil War. Each act as a backdrop to the unique story of two brothers, Marko and Blacky. Two men who are connected by politics, power and sex. They had different motives, one sought power and the other, justice. Blacky becomes driven blind by trust and eventually loses himself in the world of his friend’s brutal and heartless lies. Having everything taken from him by his brother.  

Magical realism in film is hard to achieve, and to get where Underground got I would consider almost impossible. But the director Emir Kusturica pulled it off. How he portrays the "magical" element in magical realism is maybe the best way you can do it. Instead of going over the overused tricks of “magical beings” similar to “Big Fish” by Tim Burton and “Pan’s Labyrinth” by Guillermo del Toro, Underground took on the approach of what I would call "magic by extreme ridicule". The movie's characters are placed against historical events, creating a vivid experience for the audience in seeing it. Then there's the underground expressway that connects all of the countries in Europe. The magnificent underground weddings with the most mellow and beautiful brides. And the non-stop festive trumpet always playing the same tune in the movie throughout the happiest, the saddest, the bloodiest and the most heart-warming scenes. All the while tracing out the realistic history background of Yugoslavia through the story of these two brothers. 

The movie was produced in war-time, is about wars and ultimately references the land on which it was made. Yugoslavia, united under political interest, found itself broken down decades later much like the love and hate shared by the same brothers in the movie.  

I couldn’t help but think about Emir Kusturica’s sorrows, when he decided to make the happiest, the most ridiculous movie to mourn for his beloved country that was heading into oblivion minute by minute and ending the film with the final, inimitable line: “Once upon a time, there was a country”.

“I can forgive, but never forget” - Petar "Blacky" Popara

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