Banned in Russia, this fantasy feature sees the country ruled over by an elite, secret conclave of vampires

Empire V

Source: Fantasia International Film Festival

‘Empire V’

Dir: Victor Ginzburg. US/Russia. 2022. 114mins

The callous, greedy upper classes are sometimes referred to as ’bloodsuckers’ –  a concept taken literally in Empire V, a stylish satire in which the Russian elite are secretly vampires. Adapting Victor Pelevin’s bestselling novel, writer/director Victor Ginzburg takes us inside this shadowy realm from the perspective of an outsider hungry to join the ranks of the powerful, unaware of the terrible price he must pay in order to enter the inner sanctum. Banned in Russia and making its world premiere at Fantasia, this moody drama works better as commentary than as a compelling narrative: while it has fun playing with genre conventions, it never really provides a story that viewers can sink their teeth into.

One of Empire V’s most rewarding elements is its constant debunking of vampire lore

Empire V was set to open in Russia in early 2022 before the government’s ministry of culture held up the film’s release permit, denying it the right to be shown on local screens. That controversy has helped raise the picture’s international profile, building anticipation for Empire V’s Fantasia unveiling, although the lack of action/suspense scenes may dampen that enthusiasm somewhat with genre viewers. 

Pavel Tabakov plays Roman, an aspiring journalist who receives a mysterious invitation to become part of ’the elite’. He accepts, but quickly realises to his horror that he has been transformed into a vampire and must undergo classes to learn about this society that has quietly ruled Russia for millennia. Now dubbed Rama, he befriends fellow new vampire Hera (Taya Radchenko) and discovers that what he thought he knew about these mythical monsters isn not entirely accurate.

One of Empire V’s most rewarding elements is its constant debunking of vampire lore. For instance, Rama has no issue walking around during the day — and rather than taking a bite out of people, he absorbs part of their essence by being close to them. (Also, these vampires don’t call it ‘blood’ — they prefer the term ‘Red Liquid’.) Especially amusing is the revelation that Russia’s elite have forever been clandestinely financing vampire films, perpetuating falsehoods about their kind so that unsuspecting humans never know how they really function.

Ginzburg, who previously made the socially-conscious 2011 drama Generation P, presents Rama as a rather callow young man who gets seduced by this lavish world. Forget the mournful immortal wretches we often see in vampire pictures: Empire V’s elite are a privileged community enjoying swanky parties and sporting dapper fashions. The film explains that these modern Russian vampires do not feast on plasma but, instead, humans’ love of money, which has become the new lifeblood of these creatures. Ginzburg’s point isn’t subtle, but it isn’t meant to be; he portrays the country as a plaything for cruel oligarchs who take everything from the working class.

Shot by Come And See cinematographer Alexey Rodionov, the film boasts a sleek look accented by special effects of varying degrees of quality. There are some brief moments of martial-arts action but, in truth, Empire V is more correctly described as a sombre drama that delivers copious world-building, explicating how these bloodsuckers operate in their universe and the different rules that govern their behaviour. Tellingly, a potentially climactic showdown between Rama and an unexpected rival resolves itself not through a fight scene but, instead, a poetry battle, with each combatant coming up with his own verses on the spot. 

But despite the director’s novel approach to making a vampire film — subverting the popular tropes to focus on more subdued storytelling — the results are noticeably uneven. Rama’s journey through this secret realm is filled with interesting details, but Empire V doesn’t have a lot of forward momentum. And although Tabakov ably conveys Rama’s placid demeanour, there is not much dimension to the character beyond that passivity, which limits an audience’s ability to connect with him. 

The supporting performances are formidable. Miron Fedorov (a hip-hop artist who records under the name Oxxxymiron and has been sanctioned by the government for his anti-war concerts) is especially ominous as one of Rama’s mentors, who may not be telling the young man the whole truth. Ultimately, the picture feels like an elaborate setup for a larger future instalment, establishing the central figures and their exotic milieu without delivering much in the way of payoff. No doubt there is a simmering anger below the surface directed at Russia’s power elite, who drain the lifeblood from the helpless populace, but Empire V does not always translate that fury into visceral filmmaking.

Production companies: Heartland Films USA, Kvadrat Film Company

International sales: Reel Suspects, 

Producers: Alexei Tylevich, Maria Kapralova, Andrey Trubitsyn  

Screenplay: Victor Ginzburg, based on the novel by Victor Pelevin

Cinematography: Alexey Rodionov

Production design: Pavel Parkhomenko, Anna Domini

Editing: Anton Anisimov, Sergei Nesterov, Vladimir Epifantsev, Irakli Kvirikadze   

Music: Vladimir Martynov, Alexander Hacke   

Main cast: Pavel Tabakov, Taya Radchenko, Miron Fedorov, Vladimir Dolinskiy, Vera Alentova, Vladimir Epifantsev, Andrey Smirnov