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"Why is it called Vodka Lemon when it tastes like almonds?"

Having taken the San Marco Prize at the 2003 Venice Film Festival, Hiner Saleem’s award winning piece Vodka Lemon is brought to us on a shiny Metrodome disc. A slightly surreal story of hardship in a snowbound Armenian village—with romance, sheep mutilation and a few laughs thrown in—we take a look at the film and the disc...

Vodka Lemon
Hamo (Romen Avinian) just wants to live the quiet life. Taking care of the family, long walks in the snow, and the regular visits to his late wife’s graveside would be all he needed. But living in a poor village, with only a ten Dram pension to tide him by, means that life is not as easy as he would like.

With a jobless son living at home, and another away in France and not faring so well with the financial side of things, Hamo has resorted to selling some of his possessions in the city. However, no matter what he does he always seems to get bartered down way below his asking price.

Nina (Lala Sarkissian) is in a similar situation. With her husband long gone, and a job selling bottles of Vodka Lemon to the infrequent passers-by, she makes ends meet with help from her daughter’s ‘career’ as a prostitute (although Nina is unaware of the exact profession). She is in arrears with the driver of the bus to the graveyard though.

When Hamo’s and Nina’s visits to their lost ones coincide, a friendship develops that could bring a bit of warmth in the numerous blizzards.

Due to restrictions in his native Kurdistan, Hiner Saleem instead chose to film in a remote village near the Caucasus Mountains. With the funding coming from various European sources, and a multinational crew, he set about the task of committing his vision to film.

The story itself is sparse, leaving you to take in the culture and the goings-on at your leisure, and Saleem tries to have something to get your attention in pretty much every scene. A lot of the film is visual, with scenes where dialogue is almost non-existent more apparent than the verbose ones. The cultural side is always on view as well, with a burial and a wedding showing two sides to the way of life, even though both are treated as a celebration (sheep mutilation aside). Native music enhances these scenes—provided by musicians on location—with an almost primal beat coursing through the movie.

Vodka Lemon
Mood-wise, the film comes out as more of a black comedy, with the situations rather than the one-liners at the forefront. The regular appearance of a man on horseback is an illustration of that—even if what he is actually doing there is never explained—and a number of characters make brief appearances only to be forgotten after their ‘set-piece’.

It does, however, have a serious side. Nina’s daughter’s predicament and the loss of Nina’s job serve to point out that life is bordering on poverty and the other villagers are in the same boat. There are also some side-stories along the way, with Hamo’s sales expeditions and his stay-at-home son’s attempts to get a job in Russia just two of them. Only the unlikely romance gives a message of hope, but the film itself is that well handled that you never feel yourself getting depressed.

From the outset, things are not particularly great with the transfer. First off there is no anamorphic enhancement, and even when watching this in 4:3 on my TV I could see the resolution causing problems. Although only really noticeable on areas where fine detail is needed—and manifesting itself with a bit of aliasing—blow this up with a widescreen ‘zoom’ and it can be distracting in places.

The colours, though, are really well balanced and the scene on the bus with the multitude of flowers (shown below) illustrates this quite well. There is an abundance of snow throughout the film, and while not a perfect white, it does allow the rest of the palette to shine. The downside of the snow is that there was, apparently, a need to use extensive edge enhancement, causing haloing on anyone or anything standing against the frozen background. There are also occasions where the detail in the blacks suffers and dark objects do have a habit of being indistinguishable from each other.

Vodka Lemon
The problems don’t end there unfortunately. The print used is not free from damage, and while the scratches are not present in every scene there are quite a lot of marks.

The English subtitles are easily readable—one of the few upsides—and the layer change has been quite well hidden between scenes at 1h15m59s in chapter eleven.

If there is any confusion as to whether there are four audio tracks on here, I’ll clear it up now. The single Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track does appear to be a mixture of languages, and while I’m not a linguistic expert (some might say English is a problem for me!) even I can detect the odd bit of French thrown in with what I would hear as Russian (it’s actually Russian, Kurdish and Armenian).

The sound itself is of a decent quality, but nothing spectacular as you would probably expect. Clarity is never a problem, and the 192Kbps track has a good dynamic range. Vocals are clear and do not appear clipped at any point during the film. There are few occasions where left-to-right panning is used (and indeed vice versa), but when it is utilised it is handled well. This is a track that does its job and it doesn’t try to be anything other than what is required.

Vodka Lemon
With the main feature only coming in at 1h26m10s, there is plenty of room to fit in some nice, juicy supplemental material.

Vodka on Ice – The Making of Vodka Lemon (42m07s, letterboxed 1.85:1) is a strange piece. Aside from a few comments from selected cast and crew (including director Hiner Saleem), this is mostly on-location footage of the filming in progress. Like the ‘Making of’ segments on Tartan’s Phone there is no voiceover, and the selective English subtitling for the various languages being spoken renders some on-screen conversations incomprehensible. The audio itself is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, with Armenian, Kurdish, Russian and French all present, with the occasional French subtitle burnt-in and betraying the content’s origins. Some sort of commentary would have helped to tie this all together, but you can usually get the gist of what is going on.

Finally—yes, already—we get some trailers. The French theatrical trailer for Vodka Lemon (1m17s) is presented here in letterboxed 1.85:1, with a DD2.0 track and English subtitles—although the actual trailer text is in French. A lesson in how not to do a trailer, it summarises pretty much the entire film, and it’s all a bit rushed.

Talking of speeding through content—and doing the opposite of the Vodka Lemon trailer and giving absolutely nothing away—there is a trailer for Lilya 4-Ever (39s, anamorphic 1.85:1, DD2.0). Trailers for The Last Victory (1m46s, anamorphic 1.85:1, DD2.0 Stereo English) and Valentin (1m15s, letterboxed 1.85:1, DD2.0 Stereo English) finish off the package.

The ‘Making Of’ is long enough, but the lack of extra information for the on-location segments does mean that it falls short of what I would expect from such a feature. Given that it is the only piece of any value on here, it is a bit disappointing. Like I said—plenty of room, but sadly not used as it possibly could have been.

Vodka Lemon
Admittedly, this is not a movie that I would normally seek out given its origins and the subject matter, but that is one of the highlights of being a reviewer. It may be a tad slow-paced for some, but the surreal touch and some good acting do result in a surprisingly decent film.

The disc itself is a disappointment, with a below par transfer and unspectacular extras. I can see where the supplementary material might not be available (or indeed interesting) for a film of this nature, but a decent print and an anamorphic transfer should be the norm for such a recent endeavour.