Displaying the bleak humor Russian films are known for, How I Ended This Summer arrives with an ironic title, more fitting for a grade-school paper than a thriller. If hipsterish Pavel (Dobrygin), a twentysomething iPod-toting college grad, were writing such an assignment, it would probably go something like this: I went to a frigid Arctic island in the middle of nowhere. My only companion was a brutish Soviet-style prig named Sergei (Puskepalis). I assisted him with his antiquated meteorological studies---the dullest work imaginable---and tried to grab some shut-eye during the semilit night hours. I played a lot of video games. I kept my spirits high as best I could.
For all the drabness the above description implies, the movie's first hour happens to be its most absorbing. Director Alexei Popogrebsky sets up the quiet tensions between his two generationally divided characters like a chess match pocked with occasional power grabs, like when Sergei criticizes Pavel's shoddy data collection. "People died here," he emphasizes. There's a strained father-son dynamic that begins to peek out, as well as a subtle portrait of the evolving Russia, split between duty and freedom.
Too bad, then, when an urgent telegram from the mainland shifts the film into survivalist mode. You'll be stupefied as the plot becomes an endless (and largely suspense-free) chase scene, with furious Sergei stalking Pavel across the tundra. (The clash is doubly irritating for having little motivation apart from a minor misunderstanding.) Who took over the screenwriting duties? Tony Scott? Sometimes drama, like borscht, tastes better when slowly simmered, not brought to a boil.