Movie review: Cold War is a haunting affair



88 minutes/Opens tomorrow/4.5 stars

The story: In Poland, just after World War II, a musician and a singer fall in love. Their desires are thwarted by the state as well as debates over whether exile is preferable to repression at home. The story begins after the war, when Zula (Joanna Kulig), a young singer with a troubled past, comes under the guidance of Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), a composer and arranger given the job of making Polish folk music great again. The film is nominated in three categories (Best Foreign Language, Best Director, Best Cinematography) at the Academy Awards.

This is a rare film in which everything gels so perfectly, the whole would collapse if one element were missing.

There is the cool monochrome look; the music that moves from folk songs to sultry Parisian jazz; the sparse dialogue paired with long takes; and, not least, the crisp yet sensitive editing that brings everything home in just under 90 minutes.

Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski tells the story of a doomed love affair with a deep understanding of theme, variation and repetition.

Like the central song, sung in rustic style in the first act, then reborn as an aching torch song which might have flowed from the pen of Elvis Costello or the horn of Chet Baker, episodes in the lives of Zula and Wiktor play out, each marked by the same haunting motif, musically and emotionally.

They are not a couple, but part of a triangle, with the state forming the third apex. The cultural apparatchik Kaczmarek, played with smarmy self-satisfaction by Borys Szyc, is the hand that smothers, but also feeds - the three are locked in a dance of respect, obligation and sexual jealousy.

Britain-based Pawlikowski used to teach Singapore film-maker Anthony Chen (Ilo Ilo, 2013) at the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire, England. Perhaps not coincidentally, both are expatriates who have spent a large part of their lives in Britain, whose important works have been nostalgic remembrances of the home country.

In Ilo Ilo, Chen recalls a childhood under the care of his Filipino domestic helper, while in Cold War, Pawlikowski's story - inspired by the lives of his parents - has characters tortured by a dilemma: freedom in exile or staying home and working under the thumbs of those with a completely utilitarian view of the arts.

As in Pawlikowski's last feature, Ida (2013), also set in a Poland under Russian control, Cold War expresses how difficult it is to choose the truth of one's life. For Wiktor and Zula, as this sorrowful but beautifully rendered film illustrates, the choice exacts a terrible price.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2019, with the headline 'Haunting affair'. Print Edition | Subscribe