Thursday, April 29, 2010

Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Yusuf Trilogy" (2007-2010)

Yesterday, I went to see Bal (Honey) for the third time.

I went there because I felt like I needed the movie, because it was the only real thing around. Bal would offer me a ride to the very essence of things, while everything else seemed bland... I needed therapy, and it was with this mindset that I went in, not knowing what to expect, except to be healed... Healed I was when it was over.

Now that I'm getting familiar with it, the road it offers feels less bumpy, like a free-flowing conversation. This familiarity does not ruin the experience at all, it breeds no contempt, no boredom. It's the other way around, Bal feels closer and closer to home, like a memorized prayer that gets more elating each time it is read (not that I'm a religious person in any way). Is it just coincidence or a case of selective attention that I ran into the following two quotes by Beckett today?

“All poetry, as discriminated from the various paradigms of prosody, is prayer.”


“ has nothing to do with clarity, does not dabble in the clear and does not make clear.”

In his thoughtful article on Semih Kaplanoğlu's Yusuf Trilogy, Fatih Özgüven gives us some clues on how to approach these seemingly distant films. Here is my own summary of what he says, or rather, what I understand from it:

The trilogy consists of three films with peculiar titles: Yumurta (Egg), Süt (Milk), Bal (Honey). The following explanation for the titles only work in the context of the trilogy as the films create their own meanings:

Honey represents the Father, who acquires his knowledge of the world through work (the bees are working and Yusuf's father works in order to obtain honey and teaches his son how to). Milk represents the Mother who has a more innate knowledge of life, just as milk comes naturally. She is also the one insisting that Yusuf drinks milk. Egg is life, or birth, which can only happen through the coming together of what's innate and what's acquired.

This above paragraph can be taken as a mythology of how human beings are created, OR as a mythology of how artworks are created. To draw the parallel between art and life isn't very hard here, especially since Yusuf will become a poet. The distinction between life and art is superfluous anyway.

The expending symbolisms above work as clues to the trilogy, they clarify, but shouldn't be taken too far. Semih Kaplanoğlu's films also appreciate the thingness of things. So, in a way, an egg is an egg, milk is milk, honey is honey... Quoting D.H. Lawrence:

“Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything.”

When I first heard that a Turkish film-maker whose works I had not seen before was going to make a trilogy with the titles Egg, Milk and Honey, I thought it was ridicule, a poor attempt at something. Now with Bal, it all seems so very clearly, unshakably profound. In Bal, there is a scene in the classroom where a girl reads a paragraph from a textbook. It goes something like this (as much as I remember): “We eat food in order to obtain our energy. Without them we would be incapable of doing ordinary things such as walking, running, playing...”

So foods are not just foods, we exist thanks to them, they are our connections with other species, or the outer world in general. They are connections that become part of us. Notice that eggs, milk and honey are all foods obtained from animals (without actually killing them; animal meat is always gross in the films). As shown in the trilogy, human beings also use food for spiritual purposes in their rituals, as if they have metaphysical powers.

(SPOILERS in the following paragraph:)

Our senses are another connection we have with the outer world, and they are also metaphysical. Little Yusuf rings a little bell, supposedly hoping that it will somehow bring his father back. He shuts the light on and off in the evening, as if he's hoping his dad will appear all of a sudden (just like in his dreams). He also learns to taste honey, feels a need to embrace the trees... The first poem he ever hears is a Turkish translation of Arthur Rimbaud's Sensations:

“On the blue summer evenings, I shall go down the paths,
Getting pricked by the corn, crushing the short grass:
In a dream I shall feel its coolness on my feet.
I shall let the wind bathe my bare head.

I shall not speak, I shall think about nothing:
But endless love will mount in my soul;
And I shall travel far, very far, like a gipsy,
Through the countryside - as happy as if I were with a woman.”

The film ends with the sound of breathing dissolving into the sound of the forest.

For me, first and foremost, Semih Kaplanoğlu's Yusuf Trilogy is about the line between us and the outer world, or rather, about the fact that such a line actually does not exist.

I find it best to end with Semih Kaplanoğlu's own words about the Yusuf Trilogy, partly because it mentions layers I didn't even talk about here:

“Seeing at the Forum section of the 55th Berlinale, where my second film "Angel's Fall" had its world premiere in February 2005, how some directors look upon their own provincial towns opened new horizons for me.

Soon after my return home, I started writing about the Anatolian provinces; the short stories I wrote created a trilogy. The three, feature-length films will be titled Honey, Milk and Egg. I intend to begin the shooting with Egg, the third chronological story in the trilogy. The films will be shown in reverse order, i.e, as Egg, Honey and Milk.

What I'm looking at here is a longish cinematographic flash-back. Call it an internal journey, if you will, towards the authentic and away from the globalising face and appearance of the world's provinces. For it is in our provinces that the feeling of time, so eroded by civilisation, still clings.

This will also be something of an archaeological dig, extending from the last days of the mother-son relationship (with the death of the mother in Egg) to the beginning (the birth of the son in Honey). I hope in this way to narrate the burden and pain of passing time so that I may be able to invite everyone to remember and think about his own time. We all have mothers we love and it is highly possible that much is hidden in the time we spent with our mothers, and the time we are no longer able to spend with them.

I wish to note that my films are not only bound to the story, that is, the screenplay. I am of the view that time is the raw material of cinema. My expression is plain, spare in dialogue, shaped by visual and audio details and focused on conveying the sense of time passing with every breath.”

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Bal" (2010)

English title: Honey

It's a film that deserves multiple viewings but I'd just like to react to my first viewing. Warning: This post has SPOILERS!

Who would have guessed that the trilogy would end anti-climactically, down-beat, dissolving into life itself, with the sound of breathing...

As Cihan said beautifully after the film, you fall down into the film after a while, and there is no turning back.

Primitive, expressive, conscious, depressing and joyful, Kaplanoğlu's last film is not about anything. It is off life itself.

Primitive it is, somehow reminding us our primal reactions to nature, to parents, to language, to poetry. Before consciousness.

A film OFF life, its depressive nature also offers joys, some urgency, and a blatantly sensual beauty grasping the eyes first, then the mind, and later my philosophy of life.

In a Semih Kaplanoğlu film, expect to learn to be patient... And find out for yourself how that minute attention later spills over to the rest of things in your life.

Monday, April 12, 2010

29th International Istanbul Film Festival

I'm seeing a lot of films these days, thanks to the Istanbul Film Festival. I'll just list here the films I like. Will update this post as I see more. In an arbitrary order of preference:

Around a Small Mountain - Jacques Rivette

Great Films:
Five Fingers - Joseph Mankiewicz
Homage by Assassination - Elia Suleiman
Nymph - Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

Good Films:
Chronicle of a Disappearance - Elia Suleiman
Divine Intervention - Elia Suleiman
The Time That Remains - Elia Suleiman
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans - Werner Herzog
Mother - Bong Joon-ho
White Material - Claire Denis
Istanbul shorts - Maurice Pialat

I'm not sure what I feel about:
Face - Tsai Ming-Liang
Karaoke - Chris Chong Chan Fui

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Millennium Mambo" (2001)

According to Wikipedia, the word "mambo" has at least two meanings:

In the Voodoo religion in Haiti, it refers to
the female high priest, "whose responsibility it is to preserve the rituals and songs and maintain the relationship between the spirits and the community as a whole (though some of this is the responsibility of the whole community as well). They are entrusted with leading the service of all of the spirits of their lineage."

As a "
music form and dance style", "the word derives from a ki-kongo based language, the language spoken by West-Central African slaves taken to Cuba". It means "conversation with the gods".

Whichever one Hou was thinking when he titled his Millennium Mambo, he was trying to make a film about modern life where the main purpose was to have an interaction with the invisible spirituality beyond the visible world (through the character of Vicky, if we accept the first definition).

Actually, again according to Wikipedia, the word is also a greeting in Swahili 'commonly used by young people in East African countries especially Tanzania and some parts of Kenya. It's considered a slang greeting, and translates to "things?" as in "how are things?"'. Is this Hou saying "Hello!" to the new millennium and asking, somehow ironically, "how are things"?

All of these work as explanations... I'm sure there could be others.

Bland lives, lived without hopes, without love... Lives spent smoking cigarettes, perhaps because dying isn't necessarily worse than living... Meaningless music all around...

Millennium Mambo is a film of despair. The only character who seems to have real hopes about life is a 80 year old grandma living in a village far from the urban landscape. Not so surprisingly within the context, and considering Hou's love for cinema, this same village also has a film festival.

It is a film of despair, a continuation of his previous film
The Flowers of Shanghai (1998) in lots of ways, just in a different time period. I'd like to point out that the films that will follow Millennium Mambo will all have very joyful, happy, hopeful, and loveful moments, just as there are in earlier movies, beginning from The Green, Green Grass of Home (1983). There are many films of his I haven't seen but I guess it wouldn't be a mistake to call this period a relatively depressed point in his filmography.

The moments of joy in
Mambo are all too brief to give us hope, they look almost as a revolt to the blandness all around. In a film like The Flight of the Red Balloon, six years later, there is real faith in human warmth and the power of love.

You can find here Andrew Schenker's wonderful blog post about the sound on Hou's Millenium Mambo.

Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Herkes Kendi Evinde" (2001)

English title: Away From Home

There is a moment in Semih Kaplanoğlu's first feature film Herkes Kendi Evinde that announces a great filmmaker with a new vision of cinema.

It comes somewhere in the middle of the film. (SPOILERS ahead.)

We've met Olga, a Russian girl in Istanbul in search of her father. She needs about 300 dollars to go back home, but she doesn't have the money. She first tries selling her camera, it doesn't work out. So she decides to sell her body for the first time in her life. We see her dressing up, doing make up, looking at herself in the mirror. In the next shot we watch her (for about 6-8 seconds) on the street with other prostitutes, looking at the cars passing by, trying to find a client. CUT.

SLOW FADE IN to a slightly high-angle medium-long shot of Olga lying on the grass, unconscious. Her dress is messed up, her legs dispersed, she's not moving. There's no doubt, she's been "used", and there's very little doubt that the person who raped her didn't pay her any money. It's a very sad, horrifying image, empowered by a perfectly executed ellipses, worthy of its greatest uses in the history of cinema. It underlines the tragedy while keeping a distance, without dramatizing, certainly not cheapening.

But the camera keeps rolling. Nasuhi slowly comes into the frame from behind the camera, when we realize that we've probably been in slow-motion the whole time (the "whole time" lasted only about fifteen seconds). Nasuhi is a character we know from earlier, he is a nice old man, who came back from Russia, to find his old house near Istanbul. It's unlikely he knows Olga from before, but we know he might help.

How is it that he happens to be there? (a question never answered in the film...) Did the worse nightmare possible just turn into a calm fantasy? Is this a dream? (this last one should sound familiar if you've seen any other Kaplanoğlu films)

But it turns out it's not "a dream": their meeting will change the course of events for both of them, on the way to a quiet and internal half-redemption at the end. Their sense of exile will continue forever...

As it should be obvious to anyone who has seen it, Herkes Kendi Evinde is an imperfect film. There are clearly unintended flaws in the lighting, editing, acting, story-line, etc. Just the titles at the end are funny to watch, in a way, because of the spelling mistakes all around. Nevertheless, the core of art resides somewhere other than these, and a clumsy film such as this can take us to levels that accomplished productions can't even imagine.

Happily, four years later, Kaplanoğlu's next film Meleğin Düşüşü (Angel's Fall) will have nothing clumsy about it. It's a perfectly realized masterpiece.

I want to thank Tarık Zafer Tunaya Kültür Merkezi (Tarık Zafer Tunaya Cultural Center) in Istanbul for giving us a chance to see these amazing films on 35mm.