Was Communist rule really that bad? It's a question the Armenian subjects of Vodka Lemon ask as they struggle to eke a living in one of the poorest regions of the former USSR. Hiner Saleem's gentle tragi-comedy tells of an ageing widower who finds love in, of all places, a cemetery. But it's also the story of his tiny Kurdish village - a remote, snowbound outpost where the real and the surreal agreeably co-exist.
Saleem's offbeat and atmospheric yarn begins with the absurdist image of an elderly musician being towed along a road in his bed so that he can perform at a funeral. It's here that we meet Hamo (Romen Avinian), a retired ex-soldier now forced to auction his possessions to keep the wolf from the door. With his wife in the ground, his only hope rests in an adult son who has immigrated to France. But his daily visits to his late partner's grave take an unexpected turn when he finds himself drawn to an attractive widow, Nina (Lala Sarkissian), who makes the same lengthy trip each day.
"A COLOURFUL GALLERY OF ECCENTRICS"
As stories go, you could comfortably scribble this one on the back of a postage stamp. Thankfully Saleem surrounds his protagonists with a colourful gallery of eccentrics - the bickering couple who buy Hamo's wardrobe, only to find themselves with no way to cart it home; Hamo's other son, who gives away his daughter's hand in marriage in return for a non-existent dowry; and the mysterious horseman who trots through scenes without so much as a word of explanation.
The real star, though, is the rugged, mountainous landscape: a winter wonderland that will have you blinking in chilly awe. The marvel is that Saleem - like Aki Kaurismäki before him - finds human empathy and alcohol-fuelled bonhomie flourishing in such a forbidding and melancholy wilderness.
In Armenian with English subtitles.
Vodka Lemon is released in UK cinemas on Friday 24th September 2004.