Kontroll (Control)

Nimrd Antal's stunning feature directorial debut, “Kontroll,” was Hungary's biggest box-office success of 2003, and its official entry for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar. Almost two years later, it's finally getting its American release, courtesy of the entrepreneurial distributor ThinkFilm, better known for its documentaries. Set entirely in the labyrinthine netherworld that is Budapest's massive subway system, “Kontroll” is a high style, high-speed thriller that captures vividly the personnel, passengers, ambience and bizarre mores that characterize the Hungarian subway system.

Though particular, the locale will touch chords with urban audiences in other large metropolitan centers. And it's not stretching the point to suggest that Antal's film could also be perceived as an allegory of modern life. The film begins with a disclaimer, one that could be taken seriously or ironically, that reassures viewers that the events and characters are fictional, and not based on the reality of the Budapest Public Transport Co.

The story pits its handsome young hero a disaffected ticket inspector against a fiendish, unseen killer who is pushing unwitting passengers into the path of oncoming trains. When he falls for an enchanting young woman of mystery, the hero decides it's time for him to make a change. But first, he must conduct a race against time, trains, and destiny itself, in order to realize his dreams of love and a life in the daylight.

Shot mostly at night, with a dynamically vibrant camera, “Kontroll” announces the arrival of a major talent to watch, a director who's obviously well-versed with the American thriller genre, but, at the same time, succeeds in making a personal film that also reflects the sensibility of a European art film. Like all good suspense directors, Antal knows how to manipulate his viewers' expectations, while also reflecting—and exploiting—their collective fears. In this case, they concern waiting on the platform alone, and riding the subway late at night.

The subplot of a psychotic murderer on the loose might be criticized as routine device, and, indeed, Antal uses it as sort of punctuation mark, whenever he suspects that the audience might have settled into a calmer frame of mind. It's like saying, Watch out! You should always be alert to who's around you on the subway platform.

Inevitable comparisons will be made with Luc Besson's “Subway,” which also used the same locale, but was flashier and glitzier than “Kontroll,” benefiting from a larger budget and the director's international visibility. Nonetheless, I prefer “Kontroll,” which is more ambitious, more concerned with its characters, and also more humanistic in its overall conception.

Episodic and fractured by design, “Kontroll” begins with a drunken blond woman pushed onto the tracks by a hooded killer, who then quickly disappears. Bulcsu (sandor Csanyi) is like a sheriff, assigned to keep the subway safe, and make sure that passengers are paying for their ride. He's surrounded by staff of inspectors, some of whom are on probation. Bulcsu seems to have no life outside of his work. Practically living underground, he talks about “going up there,” where there's daylight.

When the story drags, Antal resorts to excitingly-shot chase scenes, such as the one in which half a dozen inspectors are chasing a young daredevil, or another one in which they try to catch the murderer. There are also quiet moments, in which Bulcsu pursues romantically a mysterious woman, who's dressed as a bear, and initially seems to be contemptuous of the inspector and all of the other men.

True to most European art films, “Kontroll” also contains some intellectual-existential thoughts, here reflected by the girl's father, Bela (Lajos Kovacs), a vet train driver prone to drinking, who knows the system well. Gradually, he becomes Bulcsu's surrogate father, instructing him how to emerge out of the dark, claustrophobic milieu into a lighter one, both literally and figuratively.
Special kudos go to Gyula Pados' cinematography, Neo's original score, Balzas Hujber's production design, and particularly Istvan's Kiraly editing. Orchestrating all of these talents admirably, Antal creates in “Kontrol” a unique environment that's both real and surreal, juxtaposing life beneath and above ground level. For a while, life in the underground seems self-contained, a place with its own values and mores; at one point, there's even a costume ball.
Among “Kontroll” many awards are the Gold Hugo at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, Le Prix de la Jeunesse (Youth Prize) at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The film is also the winner of best director, actor (Sandor Csnyi), supporting actor (Sndor Badr, Zoltn Mucsi, Zsolt Nagy, Csaba Pindroch) and cinematography at the 2004 Budapest Hungarian Film Critics Awards, as well as best director and best cinematography at the 2004 Copenhagen International Film Festival.