We have enough Russians in our neighborhood to occasionally warrant showing a contemporary Russian pop film, like the much enjoyed T-34 (protested as an act of “Russian Collusion”, if only half-heartedly) and on this particular Thursday, a charming little family film called Domovoy. Literally translated, “domovoy” means “god of the house”—a tradition found in other pagan cultures—but you can loosely translate it as “House Elf” and now you’ve got yourself a Harry Potter-sounding tie-in. Fun for the whole family.
And, actually, this is pretty darn good. Which, really, is kind of impressive because there are many opportunities for it to be bad, and it sidesteps them neatly.
The story is that a lovely single working mom leases a fancy, suspiciously-underpriced-but-still-more-than-she-can-reasonably-afford-so-she-has-to-hit-up-her-creepy-boss, apartment not realizing that the realtor has a deal with the domovoy to enchant her and her daughter so that they love it, and then to drive them out within a few weeks so she can least it again before the year is up. So, it’s a classic haunted house story with a classic Russian corruption angle.
In this case, the mom has a daughter, however, and the daughter is enchanted by the idea of having a ghostly pal, so she makes overtures which the domovoy responds to—even while trying to drive them out. The mom’s job is increasingly at risk, and this isn’t even the worst of their problems. It turns out that one of the former tenants of the room was a thief and the domovoy capriciously moved his treasure which is still buried somewhere under the floorboards. An evil witch knows this and has pressed her son into helping her get said treasure. Her son would rather just canoodle with his trashy girlfriend (hey, family movie or not, it’s still Russia) but he ultimately joins her plan to his ultimate sorrow.
While this is going on the mom puts her foot down and refuses to leave the apartment as the domovoy increasingly messes with her life. Little things like turning off her alarm clock, e.g., or defacing her work, giving creepy boss increasing reason to put pressure on her and—because she’s not that kind of woman—finally fire her. But this rebounds against the little girl, as well, giving our house god a little conflict.
Ultimately we find out that a domovoy isn’t really so much a feature of a house as it is a family. (Indeed, the true tradition seems to be rooted in the idea of beloved ancestors, much like the ones we see in Korea and China.) And when his family left without him, breaking his heart, he got bitter. After that, the families coming into the apartment were all varieties of bad, dysfunctional, abusive (a little rough for a family film, but again: Russia) and our impish spirit gets meaner and meaner and decides he’s going to protect the kvartira rather than the family.
Well, that’s a pretty good story right there, and a pretty good explication of degradation: The fall from being a helpful member of a group to just hating everyone and protecting your stuff, which itself just deteriorates.
But that said, it really works because it balances its various ingredients well. There’s a very broad scene early on with the fat realtor that makes you worry that the whole thing is going to be cheap slapstick (and is kind of painful for the whole “couldn’t find a stunt man that matched her body shape” thing we see occasionally), but while there’s some broad action and comedy later, it doesn’t go back to that well. And then you get the little girl and you wonder if maybe they’re going to lean on the cute factor, but they don’t do that particularly. There’s a little salt and a little pepper in there, not just sugar.
They could go fierce, independent woman—and probably would have in the western world—but there’s a great mix from the actress of strength and vulnerability. Her resilience as far as living with an actual poltergeist is pretty top-notch, but every now and again she breaks down and gets overwhelmed. Fair. No love interest per se but the only statement that makes is “we’re keeping the story lean”. (There is the implication of romance at the end of the film but it’s not detailed.)
Oh, yeah, and the big element here that kind of powers things is the cat. (You know, like Captain Marvel.) The cat can see and can talk to the domovoy and the two (naturally) hate each other. I don’t think I need to detail all the ways a talking cat can go wrong. (The guys at Rifftrax have you covered, though, if you’re interested.) In this case, the cat is really necessary to keeping the story dynamic and the motivations of the characters clear. It has some minimal impact on the plot: In the few situations where it could really help, it can’t do much because, you know, cat. But the voice is good, and you end up rating it as you might any comic relief character in a movie: It has a lot of jokes and gags, and some of them don’t work, but a lot of them do.
It ends up seeming less like a novelty where someone said “Let’s put a cat in there! The kids love cats!” and more like a necessary part of the story. That’s what you shoot for in this kind of thing.
The CGI is somewhat cheap by Hollywood standards but it reads well and (like a lot of the Asian movies) is more interested in winning you over with its style than trying to fool you. English composer Gary Judd wrote the score. I liked it.
Director Evgeniy Bedarev seems to be primarily a TV director, and not necessarily family-oriented, but he used the right touch here and I hope we see more of his work.