Jan Hrebejk is quickly turning into the best post-New Wave Czech director. Unfortunately, my favorite movie of his "Pelisky" (Cozy Dens) is not available in the States, but you can get Divided We Fall.
I should preface this review by saying that the last century has been very 'up and down' for the Czechs. After gaining independence from Austria-Hungary after WWI, they lost it twenty years later when Hitler invaded. After the Nazis, there was a communist takeover, followed by a gradual political liberalization until 1968, when the Eastern Bloc armies invaded and instituted a crackdown on reform. Twenty-one years later, the Czechs had a bloodless revolution and instituted a democratic republic.
Why the history lesson? Well, at several different points during the 20th century, their entire culture was endangered, whether by Nazis or the USSR. So you'd think that once the Czechs joined the European Union, they'd be in the clear, right?
Wrong. EU membership brings its own problems, not the least of which is the flow of refugees and immigrants from poorer countries into the Czech Republic. Czech culture now faces the threat of globalization, of a multicultural/multi-ethnic society that's no different from any other.
This may be lost to a casual viewer with little knowledge of Czech history. During the many occupations of the country during the 20th century, there was mass EMIgration, as people fled first the Nazis, then the Communists 20+ years later. Mass immigration represents an entirely new development for the Czechs, a new historical trauma with which they must come to grips.
Of course, the issue of whether or not globalization is something ANY of us can resist is another matter entirely, but I'm not trying to editorialize here, just provide some context for understanding the film.
The film opens with a truckload of Indians being smuggled into the country. Needless to say, there are some who resent the intrusion of foreigners into their culture--namely, racist soccer hooligans, as well as a pair of thieves who nevertheless disguise themselves as members of the races they despise in order to pick pockets at the Prague airport.
Emilia Vasaryova's character resents the intrusion of foreigners, but has no qualms about buying low-priced shoes at the Vietnamese market. In other words, she doesn't mind getting a bargain (on labor, products, etc.) from immigrants, but she doesn't want to LIVE near them. Such is the tortured logic of racism, I suppose, and in this character many Americans (if they're honest with themselves) might recognize their Czech doppelganger. This particular character embodies the logic of Dan Barta's song "Hello, America", which plays during the opening credits.
Up and Down loosely weaves together multiple storylines involving, among others, one aforementioned soccer hooligan with racist friends and a mentally unstable wife, an emigrant to Australia whose ex-girlfriend is now with his father (and with whom she has had a child!), idiotic thieves, a Burmese martial-arts master, and so on.
The film remains ambivalent toward most of the characters, but never fully condemns any of them, showing their rationale for making potentially destructive decisions. Although UP AND DOWN is a comedy (and contrary to other reviewers, I thought the film was hilarious), it also deals fairly honestly with the question of globalization, immigration, and racism without too heavy a hand. I can only imagine how badly this movie would have turned out in the hands of an American director!
I saw this film two days ago and some of the characters are still in my thoughts, for better or for worse. It's rare nowadays when a movie gives you a cast of characters that touch you on some level. Highly recommended.