The Give and Take of 'Up And Down'

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

TWO POSSIBLE translations of "Horem Padem," the Czech nonsense phrase identifying filmmaker Jan Hrebejk's newest comedy-drama, might be "Topsy-Turvy" or, as the filmmaker suggested in an interview, "Helter Skelter." Since the first translation hints at a light comedy, and the second has far darker connotations, the more neutral English phrase that has been slapped, somewhat arbitrarily, on the film, "Up and Down," is probably the best compromise. Although "Up and Down" only suggests the movie's strange, bipolar mood and has even less to do with the specifics of its peripatetic plot, it somehow captures the sense of both optimism and despair that colors this haunting little film, whose chaotic universe is churned up by the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the us and thems, the insiders and outsiders of contemporary life in Prague.

Here's an example: After some brief, introductory "Pulp Fiction"-style dialogue about the merits of eating horse vs. mink, mouse and bat, an abandoned baby turns up in the back of a truck that had been carrying illegal Indian immigrants across the Czech-Slovak border. In the space of 10 minutes, we've gone from low comedy to high drama. It won't be the last time either.

The infant soon ends up in a pawn shop, where a childless couple, the infertile Mila (Natasa Burger) and her husband, Franta (Jiri Machacek), a soccer hooligan on probation and therefore unable to adopt, snap up the child. All's more or less well, even after Franta's xenophobic, skinhead soccer chum (Jaroslav Dusek) discovers the mysterious, dark-skinned newborn. But when Franta, a security guard, is called into the police station to fill out a report on an allegation of pickpocketing at the fast-food restaurant where he works, his own background becomes suspect.

The plight of one couple in possession of a baby who doesn't belong to them and the question of whether the child will ever be reunited with his real mother would be enough to power any film, but Hrebejk is interested in frying bigger fish than the average melodramatic hack.

Stirred into this mess is another sad and loopy family centering on Martin (Petr Forman, son of director Milos), a Czech immigrant to Australia who returns to the land of his birth when his estranged academic father (Jan Triska) collapses while teaching. Precipitated by his sense of approaching mortality, the father announces his intention to divorce his long-separated wife and Martin's mother, Vera (Emilia Vasaryova), to marry his live-in girlfriend, Hana (Ingrid Timkova), a much younger woman who also happens to be Martin's ex-lover.

To make matters more interesting -- not to mention more comic, sad, beautiful and ugly -- and in keeping with Hrebejk's interest in nationalism, assimilation, otherness and the melting pot, Vera is a nasty racist who rails against foreigners, and Hana works for a refugee aid society.

Serious stuff, to be sure, but hilarious touches abound. At one point, an Asian couple that Hana's organization has been helping to gain asylum in Prague is strolling by the river when the same hoodlums who first came across the baby try to mug them, not knowing that the Asian man is a martial arts expert.

With his focus on Mila and Franta, and Martin's entanglements, it is clear that Hrebejk's true subject is family. Here, though, that means not just blood relatives but the entire family of man. The movie could end very well with Martin's return to Brisbane, which under Hrebejk's camera is a world shot through with blindingly bright yellows, as opposed to the grays of Prague. When we meet Martin's Australian family, whose identities give the film a kind of twist ending and drive home its points, it's enough. As Martin's Aussie neighbor greeted him with a cry of "Hey, Martin, welcome home!" I could have walked out of the theater a happy man.

But Hrebejk doesn't end there. In an epilogue of sorts that makes "Up and Down" a cautionary tale, he returns to Prague for an update on those whom Martin has left behind. Vera, the most virulently racist, as a result of her fear of the "other," has become a lonely, embittered old woman, with no one to keep her company but the mechanical novelty figures she collects that continue to act in the only way they know how -- in other words, as they have been programmed.

UP AND DOWN (R, 108 minutes) -- Contains obscenity, sexual context, racist dialogue and brief violence. In Czech, German and Russian with subtitles and some English. At the Avalon.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company