The 42nd International Istanbul Film Festival offered political pictures that brilliantly dissect the wretched state of the world we live in.
An actor playing Adolf Hitler in a barely plausible, low-budget Holocaust film quits, and a day laborer working as an extra, who has never acted before and looks nothing like the Führer, has to replace him. Such is the fate of Shakib (Mohsen Tanabandeh, who is sporting the best Hitler impression I have ever seen) in Houman Seyyedi’s darkly comic Istanbul-awarded World War III (Jang-e Jahani Sevom).
Initially hired to help build the movie’s sets, including the gas chamber, where he sleeps at night, Shakib is eventually promoted to playing the big man, Adolf Hitler, himself. At first, he doesn’t want the job. Quite frankly, he looks ridiculous with that new mustache. But with the new role also comes the opportunity to secretly help his lover Ladan (Mahsa Hejazi), a deaf and mute sex worker, escape her pimp. Things soon go South though, Shakib’s attempt to hide her goes terribly wrong, and literally nothing can prepare the viewer for what comes next.
I am not going to enter spoiler territory, the ending is one of a kind, but the right amount of despair will turn any powerless oppressed man into the coldblooded oppressor. Reiterating one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes (“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”) and alluding to an obscure saying by Hannah Arendt (“in dictatorships, everything goes well up until 15 minutes before total collapse”), Houman Seyedi, one of the most prolific figures in modern Iranian cinema, is dancing on the edge of madness here. His satire is gloriously strange, political, and turns more tragic and bluer as it goes.
In the meantime, director July Jung’s sophomore feature Next Sohee (Da-Eum-So-Hee), offers us a two-part story on the exploitation and abandonment of young people in South Korea. Like Jung’s astonishing debut feature A Girl at My Door (Dohee-ya) in 2014, Next Sohee stars brilliant actress Bae Doona as a detective, who investigates a young girl’s suicide (played by a talented Kim Si-eun). Next Sohee has a dark and fierce underbelly and is perhaps the most nerve-wracking cinematic reminder of those who have been crushed by capitalism.
Martin Skovbjerg’s sophomore film Copenhagen Does Not Exist (København findes ikke), written by no other than Eskil Vogt (The Worst Person in the World, Thelma, Reprise), has no happy ending either. It is a stylish, sensual psychological thriller packed with trauma and sadness. A distressed young Danish man, played by Jonas Holst Schmidt, is locked into an empty apartment, and sat in front of a camera. His girlfriend (Angela Bundalovic) has disappeared, and her wealthy father (Zlatko Burić), wants answers. He does not seem to have them, but as the drama unfolds, Skovbjerg slowly reveals what’s going on, and who’s telling the truth. Again, no spoilers, but it has a real sense of pain and is reminiscent of Vogt’s Reprise (2006).
In Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s drama Pamfir (Памфір), a retired Ukrainian smuggler, triumphantly played by Oleksandr Yatsentyuk, is forced to do one last job. Quite frankly it’s hard to believe that this is the Ukrainian director’s first feature film. It does now show. It offers a unique cinematic language, is loaded with powerful symbolism. Set in the Carpathian mountains, on Ukraine’s border with Romania, and filmed in the days and weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, this stylish drama captures the corruption and toxic machismo in the far west of the country. Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk is a promising new voice, who’s deliberate long takes take us deep into an exploited man’s life.
Last but not least, Ayşe Polat’s mystery thriller In the Blind Spot (Im toten Winkel) is a Rashomon-style story about the sinister and social coexistence between Turks and Kurds, and about how trauma transcends time and generations. It was this year’s big winner at the Istanbul festival, and some might say rightfully so. The drama tells the story of a 7-year-old Turkish girl, gloriously played by Çağla Yurga, and her father (Ahmet Varlı), who are drawn into a web of conspiracy and paranoia. With Patrick Orth (Toni Erdmann) behind the camera, and the two leads in front, it packs a political, well-timed, and powerful punch.
© FIPRESCI 2023