Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Lukas Moodysson’s 2002 film, Lilja 4-ever, presents the story of Lilja (Oksana Akinshina), a 16 year-old girl growing up somewhere in the former Soviet Union, who ends up as a victim of sex-trafficking. The topic, mostly smothered by statistics and political contexts whenever touched in the media, is brought to the forefront and given an undeniable personal dimension in the film. Lukas Moodysson, to his credit, never attempts to veer the story towards anything resembling a pleasant direction. It is not a feel-good film, nor, considering its topic, should it be.
The film opens with Lilja running in a bleak urban setting to the almost deafening sound of a hard rock song about burning hearts. She stops on a bridge overlooking a highway and the story takes a step three months back, to Lilja’s life in an unspecified place in the former Soviet Union, where she is cheerfully packing, believing she is moving to America with her mother and her mother’s new boyfriend. As it quickly turns out, her mother would rather leave her behind, in the care of an aunt who moves her into a small, destitute apartment and more or less leaves her there to fend for herself. What follows is an unstoppable and predictable downward spiral.
Lukas Moodysson is not a director of subtleties and Lilja 4-ever does not claim to be a subtle film. The way Lilja’s realities are pictured gives the film a visceral, stomach punching feel. There are, however, moments when Moodysson tries too hard to make a point that would easily come through even without staged melodrama, for example, the scene where Lilja, chasing after her mother, stumbles and falls into a mud puddle — perhaps the film could have done without the attempted delving into the metaphorical. However, Lilja’s existence itself, her personality, her attitude towards her surroundings speaks volumes. She burns brightly and uncompromisingly in the midst of a repressive and disheartening environment. Not that her choices are always correct or that her attitudes are always right — Lilja is not a perfect individual, nor is she supposed to be. But something about her readiness to give those around her the finger, her bravado, her older sister attitude towards Volodya make it impossible not to connect to her, not to care about her, and in turn, not to become involved in her situation on a personal level.
The authenticity of the post-soviet landscape is striking, the air of destituteness of the block of flats, the dilapidated industrial mammoth skeletons and the washed-off color of the clothes captured in a completely non-romantic cinematography, expose the unforgivingly cold and ultimately hopeless atmosphere Lilja and her peers are growing up in. Adult figures will appear in the film mostly in a disinterested or abusive, brutal capacity. Not that characters Lilja’s age are any less aggressive. Her friend, who practices prostitution for some spare cash, blames it on Lilja when her father finds out about it, claiming it wouldn’t affect Lilja, since she has no parents. This, in turn, causes her other
former “friends” to constantly harass and brutalize Lilja, leaving only young Volodya (played by Artyom Bogucharskiy) by her side. Volodya, who starts off as just another neighborhood brat, will become the only symbol of humanity, next to Lilja, in the entire film, and the sibling bond they form throughout is as endearing as both their situations are soul-crushing.
The bits of stolen reprieve in Lilja and Volodya’s lives only serve to further showcase how distressing their situation is. Their former-factory caricature of a playground is filled with remnants of communist “greatness” — a mural of Lenin and transcripts of old speeches serve as the treasure troves of a childhood treasure hunt gone awry. Volodya and Lilja’s names, scribbled on the bench outside the apartment complex are the only traces of permanence in the two characters’ lives. Not surprisingly, both feel the need to affirm their existence, when everything around them takes turns in denying them any trace of importance.
It’s just a matter of time before desperation makes Lilja resort to the prostitution she’d previously resisted, and before she meets a “nice guy” who promises her a good job and a home in Sweden. Volodya warns her against it, pleading with her not to go, but naively, she doesn’t listen.
Once in Sweden, she finds herself locked in an apartment with no means of escape. The man in charge of her threatens: “if you run away, I will kill you, and if you go to the police, they will send you back, and there, my friends will kill you” and it’s plenty obvious not an ounce of his threat leaves room for disbelief.
“Remember that time when we sat on that bench and you wrote ‘Lilja 4-ever’? And those assholes that spat at us? I said that we should leave but you said you weren’t ready. That’s how it is now. Everyone’s spitting at you, but you’re not ready. Jump if you want, it’s not dangerous. I’ll catch you. But then you lose and the assholes that spit on you win.”
The most chilling aspect of the film may well be the fact that the progression of Lilja’s story is not surprising. Each step takes Lilja, Volodya and the viewer further into dehumanization, with no means to stop or fight back. The natural progression to the film’s conclusion doesn’t render it any less painful — as things go on, one can’t help wondering how the events in Lilja’s life could keep happening, only to realize they happen all the time.
Rhea Cinna is film critic for The Missing Slate.