It’s okay to be slightly afraid of Hungarian movies. Even critics don’t necessarily relish the thought of them, or look upon Budapest as a hotbed of filmmaking. As a matter of fact, it’s hard to recall the last time there was a good movie from the land that gave us goulash.
So it means a lot to say that Hungary’s latest offering, Kontroll, is not just a good movie, but a great one. Were it not for the subtitles, it would be virtually guaranteed instant cult status, à la Swingers or Trainspotting; if there’s justice in the entertainment world, it still might make it.
Kontroll begins in an odd fashion, with a disclaimer by an employee of the Budapest subway system explaining that the film we are about to see is not representative of the actual way transport workers conduct their business, but rather is a very symbolic tale. It’s unclear whether this introduction is real — tonally, it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest, but is it really the sort of thing that holds up in court as a legal disclaimer? Regardless, there are indeed symbolic ways of reading the film, but they aren’t essential. As a story to be taken literally, it works fine.
Kontroll is the name of the division of subway workers responsible for ticket inspections. For the most part, they dress shabbily and work undercover, pulling out their official armbands at random intervals to confront suspicious passengers, who try to evade responsibility with every trick in the book: sexual harassment charges, fake handicaps, even a Gypsy curse. The bosses are introducing full-on uniforms for the most successful employees — stylin’ leather jackets with embroidered insignias. Seems like a counterproductive idea if you want to catch people unawares, but in this story, the new jackets serve as a symbol of class envy. Slick rich boy Gonzo (Balázs Lázár) is the guy whose crew gets them, while our ne’er-do-well protagonist Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi) — who left a competitive corporate job to work the subway — gets dissed.
All sorts of strange things go on in these tunnels. Initially, the film plays like a thriller, as a threatening hooded figure is wandering about pushing people in front of trains. But there’s plenty of humor, too, especially from Bulcsú’s co-worker Muki (Csaba Pindroch), a narcoleptic who falls asleep every time he becomes really agitated. There’s also action and macho rivalry, some of it involving a tagger named Bootsie (Bence Mátyási), who lives to provoke the Kontroll workers, and some involving Bulcsú’s ongoing feud with Gonzo, which culminates in a potentially deadly race against an oncoming train.
There’s also romance, as a mysterious girl in a teddy bear costume periodically appears to lure Bulcsú out of his self-imposed shell, shows him secrets in his dreams, and offers to take him to a large rave that, from the beginning, we are told will be held in the subway. The build toward the party, when combined with the mysterious stalker and the movie’s wild tone, evokes memories of Gregg Araki’s Nowhere, but with higher production values than any American indie auteur could manage.
Bulcsú, it turns out, actually sleeps in the stations and has not been above ground for quite some time. Metaphorically, he is doing his time in purgatory, struggling with himself. It’s implied, but never confirmed, that he might be the mystery killer, but director Nimród Antal leaves it up to you to decide. Certainly the sequence in which he goes into a cave like Luke Skywalker on Dagobah and faces his fear bolsters the case, as does the whole sleep-deprivation angle, previously used in Fight Club and Secret Window. Yet it’s left entirely plausible that the killer could be a distinct entity. Whichever side you come down on will certainly affect whether or not you read the ending as literal or fantastical.
Besides, it doesn’t really matter. The energy and the richness of the characters make the proceedings fun to watch even if you don’t care to think about them deeply. If you’d prefer to look at symbols, and read into the story using mythological/theological templates, there’s plenty of substance there too. As subway movies go, it beats the hell out of Luc Besson’s Subway or Joseph Ruben’s Money Train, both of which had their charms. American indie directors looking to show their stuff could do a lot worse than tracking down the remake rights — there’s rich potential here.