Very few people would relish the prospect of spending months in a ramshackle hut on an island in the extreme north-east of Russia. In How I Ended This Summer, Pavel Danilov (Grigory Dobrygin), a cocksure student from the big city, does just that. He makes the trip to Chukokta to perform menial meteorological tasks once every couple of hours, whilst spending his free time playing first-person-shooters on a primitive computer. His companion in the Russian wilderness is Sergey Gulybin (Sergey Puskepalis), who has spent his whole life in the desolation, going out on regular trips into the lagoon to catch trout.
These two are the only characters we see in the film, which is permeated by incredible scenes of Arctic beauty. Pavel Kostomarov excels in his role as cinematographer, whilst Alexei Popgrebski’s skills as director are pushed to the limit in this 2010 piece, and the result is one of great modern Russian cinema. How I Ended This Summer is a slow film, and it makes no apology for this fact. We see Pavel countless times sauntering outside the shack to go and take the temperature readings, or we go and watch him make his way up a cliff and take the readings of the nuclear reactor still pumping out toxic emissions into the Arctic. The relationship between the Danilov and Gulybin is like that of their surroundings; cold and desolate.
How I Ended This Summer comes full circle when news comes in via the radio link with the mainland that Gulybin’s wife and child, who had recently moved to Siberia, perished in a road accident. However, the handsome twenty-something from the city is unable to bring himself to break the news to Gulybin, who had previously lectured him about how the wilderness makes people lose their minds. What unfolds is a tragedy both bizarre in its concept and its outcome, which certainly proves the rugged Gulybin right.
If you’re looking for action or polished scriptwork then How I Ended This Summer may not be a film for you. It is truly an artistic film, and the time-lapse as the credits roll is one of distinct beauty. Mother Nature is a cruel beast, but at the same time she can be a charming mistress, and Kostomarov and Popgrebski have certainly managed to mix these two effectively.
Dobrygin’s ability to play both the calm and cocky city student, as well as the rabid, neurotic character he becomes is to be highly commended, while Puskepalis performs admirably in his role as supporting lead, although lacks the charisma of his younger counterpart. The pace is pedestrian, reflecting a trend in modern Russian dramas as evidenced in The Return (2003), and The Banishment (2007), but this pace feels right. The calm lapping of the East-Siberian Sea soon turns into an Arctic storm which mirrors the progression of the film, and is once again testament to the work of Popgrebski in bringing both people and nature together.