In this Romanian town in the east of the country, the day is just beginning, and the street lights are going off around the place as the dawn starts to break, though you could observe it is so overcast and gloomy that it's difficult to tell. It is the dead of winter, and this is not the most well-off region meaning money is in short supply, and that tends to be spent on alcohol if possible, but it does have its own television station which Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) is a controller of. He has his own shows as well, and today, as Christmas approaches, he wants to stage a discussion programme about the Romanian revolution of 1989 and the events that played out in their home town all those years ago...
The point seemed to be that if the Communists were making a film about a revolution, they would have poured money into an epic that cast the Romanians as dashing heroes, fighting for all that was right and just, but now, in 2006 nearly twenty years after, they got this, where there was a new generation who couldn't give a shit about the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime, which was by no means a peaceful event and indeed resulted in the not-so-dear leader being executed for his exploitation and murder of his citizens. At least, it was not peaceful in Bucharest or Timisoara, for writer and director Corneliu Polomboiu registered his scepticism that anyone else in the country did anything positive whatsoever.
Not that they were doing much negative either, but according to this most people simply watched television to find out what was going on and waited to see how it affected them rather than taking to the streets and laying siege to government buildings. This becomes very apparent when Virgil stages his discussion show in the second half of the film, a deliberately shoddy affair complete with wayward camera direction, hands emerging from nowhere to confiscate origami boats one guest has made for something to occupy him, and a run of telephone callers who refuse to play the game, swear, and insult the guests for claiming to have done anything on the fateful day except get drunk like they always did anyway.
In case you hadn’t noticed, 12:08 East of Bucharest, or A fost sau n-a fost? In Romanian, meaning approximately What Happened or Didn't Happen?, was a comedy, though not one that went all out for belly laughs. It wasn't exactly gentle either, with a withering view of Polomboiu's fellow citizens, though its intriguing mixture of the scathing and the deadpan was leavened by a mild compassion for the characters who had given up hope now that the post-revolutionary times had given way to poverty and an increasing apathy since nobody had emerged with a clear vision of how to improve their circumstances. Certainly one of the guests, Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), a schoolteacher, sees nothing in his students to indicate the future is in safe hands when passing exams is nobody's goal but lighting cheap firecrackers is.
The second guest is Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an elderly gentleman who we watch being persuaded to play Santa Claus for the kids, but is less than impressed with the suit he is given to wear, stained as it is. He, like other characters, visits the local bric-a-brac shop which is run by a Chinese immigrant (George Guoqingyun) who the director slyly pointed out was doing far better financially than any of the customers he sold to thanks to a more acute work ethic and ability to identify trends in public spending - he's making a fortune on those firecrackers, for instance. But it was that TV show where most of the laughs arrived, probably because decades of parodies have given the audience a familiarity of spoofing such media so they could respond to the shabbiness of the broadcast. Still, there was a seriousness here that tended to weigh down the humour; it remained funny nonetheless, but a creeping despair was tangible when it looked as if people were simply giving up. Music by Rotaria.