Turkish cinema is a revelation, and yes it is ironic that I have to come all the way to Korea to see so much of it (what, you think this stuff is available in the US?); I've wolfed down six so far and am in the process of re-viewing a seventh, and they are all wonderful, some of them even great films, and in so many different ways.
Yilmaz Guney's black and white Umut (Hope, 1970) is the kind of introduction to a nation's cinema that a critic both dreams of and dreads--dreams because, well, it's like Ali Baba's cave, you say the magic word and the rock opens up to riches unheard of; dread because you're afraid that with the yardstick set this high, all succeeding films will just be a disappointment.
The story is as simple as one can want: Cabbar (Guney himself--before he began directing he was a popular actor called 'The Ugly King,' because he played so many villains) is a horse carriage driver making a meagre living on the streets of Adana; when one horse is killed by a passing car (it's incredible how thin the line is between survival and sudden catastrophic insolvency), he's forced to try replace it or find another way of supporting his family, all the while trying to hold off his creditors (anyone who's ever had to pay off his credit card debt can empathize) and keep his wife and children alive.
It's not a very cheerful scenario. Guney's camerawork recalls the neorealists at their simplest, and finest. He makes prominent use of the high-angle shot as a way of apprehending the squalor of Cabbar's back yard or the length of a city street at a single glance, and as a way of pointing out to us how, seen from this godlike vantage point, these souls whose lives he's following look like so many ants.
Beyond that is a kind of offhand poetry that Guney sprinkles throughout the film, like so many tossed-off gems. An early sequence has someone washing hands and face, followed by a boy bathing in a basin with a puppy, followed by a woman pouring out water--the boy suddenly picks up the puppy and dunks it in the laundry wash, and is roundly spanked for the offense; going out to play, the children indulge in the cheapest amusement possible, rented bikes, and as they and other children pedal furiously on the sidewalk they form a whirling circle of clattering wheels; when the horse is killed, Cabbar has it loaded on a cart, and brought to a desert (Guney shoots the cart in long shot, trundling under a vast landscape). They find a spot, and (gruesome, yet lovely moment), Cabbar lifts the horse's limbs up and over, a pair of stiff legs at a time, to dump him on the ground.
Beyond that are details that serve to sharpen the drama and pierce the heart. The children are irrepressible imps, and when his wife Fatma (Gulsen Alniacik) sends one out to buy salt, he promptly spends the money on biking; the mother slaps him, the father gives the child money to buy salt again and bike some more, the mother throws up her hands and says (not unjustifiably) "I wish I was dead, I wish you were all dead." This is family with all its attendant chaos and energy and petty injustices, and it's wonderful comic filler to relieve the grimness of their situation, their own way of coping with their situation without cracking up, and a fiendish setup on Guney's part to make you realize the enormity of what's at stake.
Guney shows you Cabbar's more sensible gambits--how he looks for another job, or asks to borrow money, or tries to cobble together financing to buy a horse. It's like watching a mouse run a wheel; Cabbar exhausts himself without getting anywhere, and you're made aware--without a word of explicit explanation--that it's the system that's destroying him, wearing him down, denying him a way out of a situation that was never his fault in the first place.
When he finally agrees to his friend Hasan's (Tuncel Kurtiz) plan, he's pretty much at the end of his tether. Hasan claims that a Hodja (Osman Alyanak), knows the location of buried treasure, and that for a large fee the holy man will guide them; Guney records the putting together of the hunting expedition in great detail; every lira spent on shovels and pickaxes and celebratory kebabs (the scene of the family going out on a once-in-a-lifetime eating spree could have come straight out of Stroheim's Greed), every assurance Cabbar makes to his wife that soon she'll be rolling in wealth comes off as so pathetic it would be hilarious, if it wasn't so horrifying. With promises of riches to come, Cabbar of course talks about a house and new clothes, but throws in a brand new horse and carriage (even in his wildest dreams, he can't imagine himself being anything more than a carriage driver).
Cabbar' best friend Hasan is the devil, of course; in the best diabolical fashion he pops into the frame filled with Cabbar' anguished face and whispers the most absurd notions into his ear (like robbing a man who understands not a single word of Turkish). so when he talks of the devil being a queer thing, and gives advice on how to avoid him, I have to laugh; his lack of self-awareness or irony is immense. He and the Hodja make a superb Laurel-and-Hardy team, as they weave a web of delusion and damnation around poor Cabbar.
Perhaps the most harrowing moment comes near the film's end, when at one point Cabbar stops his digging into the desolate landscape (the images Guney creates here--twisted, leafless trees; Cabbar and Hasan in silhouette against a flaming sky; the dug hole widening and deepening--a symbol of their growing collective delusion--is well nigh unforgettable), and starts to moan and shriek; he's spent most of his savings on this venture, and kept at it for over thirty days when he promised to be back in ten. Hasan and Hodja agree he's cracked, and that he'll recover when the treasure is found (the irony of this offhand remark is staggering), but actually he's starting to go sane--he's realized what he's done to himself and his family, and the enormity of it is so overwhelming he must give it voice. Great film, easily the best of the collection.
That said, my dread (that everything that follows will be anticlimactic) was unwarranted. Suru (The Herd), made nine years later, is the near-epic story of a tribe of Kurdish shepherd that travels from their Southeastern province to Ankara, the capital, to sell their sheep. Ostensibly directed by Zeki Okten, it's really Guney's film; by this time he was in prison, and was directing it from prison with Okten's help.
The film begins with a quick discussion summing up the situation so far: the Halilan tribe and Veysikan tribe are feuding; Hamo (Tuncel Kurtiz) is all for continuing the feud, perhaps wiping out the other tribe, but is held back by the marriage of his son Sivan (Taric Akan) to Berivan, a Veysikan (Melike Demirag). Sivan and Berivan's marriage used to be seen as the best hope for peace between the two communities, but even that is in doubt now, as Berivan has lost all her children. Hamo accuses her of killing them, a monstrous thought; it's not clear whether the accusation comes out of his disappointment at not having grandchildren, or his desire to openly fight the Veysikans.
Guney's attitude towards these people is perhaps the most interesting facet of the film; you can see his sympathy towards them and their plight, and his anger at those who take advantage, the same time you see his anger and perhaps even contempt for their apparent helplessness and superstition (Hamo repeatedly blaming their bad luck on poor Berivan, for example). He shows Hamo to be a constantly bitter, tightfisted tyrant, unable to give up enough money to fully fund his daughter-in-law's treatment, unyielding in his contempt for Veysikans, yet it's that very stubbornness that helps keep the tribe together through their miles of journey by train. Sivan is loving, loyal, tender to his mute wife (after losing her children, she's somehow unable to speak), yet in one startling scene he pleads with her to talk to him, to make a sound; when she fails to do so he beats her. "Tell me not to hit you!" he yells as he pounds and flails away; the rage is shocking because it's so clearly fueled by his love and frustrated hopes--the only thing needed to start the violence blazing is a momentary lapse of self-restraint.
Again as with Umut there's this offhand lyricism. Footage of the Kurds' daily life)--playing, tanning hides, grilling breads, stirring stews over open flames; the train passing through one gorgeous landscape after another; the sheep as a long, snaking presence padding through the streets and grasslands. The symbols are not overly insisted on but are there if you wish to see them, and richly evocative--Berivan's birds in a cage, a metaphor for her own improbable, impossible beauty; the sheep, in their way--in their fragility and expense--the tribe's greatest enemy and most relentless tormentor; and Berivan herself, whose mute sterility represents the tribe's prospects for survival in a modern urban world. Then there's the depiction not so much of outright villains (odd, considering Guney became famous as an actor often playing villains), but of desperate men fighting an entire system.
Guney himself is a fascinating figure; perhaps the rough equivalent in Philippine cinema would be Lino Brocka, in his use of melodrama and neorealist techniques to create urgency and immediacy in his films. And in fact with Yol--another picture Guney directed from prison--Guney was in direct competition with Brocka's Jaguar for the 1982 Cannes Palme d'or; Guney won, a matter that Brocka reportedly took to heart, and Brocka's films ever since have become more and more politically provocative.
(and that's it for now; more Turkish films later)