Zuhal Gencer Erkaya
Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Running Time: 107 minutes
UK Certificate: 15
After losing a factory job in his home village, Yusuf (Emin Toprak) moves in with his older cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a commercial photographer living in Istanbul, where he looks for work as a seaman – until he overstays his already lukewarm welcome and decides to go off on his own. From this barebones scenario, Turkish writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has woven a collection of melancholic observations on urban isolation.
'Uzak' is Turkish for 'distant', and it takes little imagination to see why Ceylan has chosen this name for a film about the geographical, and also emotional, gulfs that delineate and constrain human existence. Both Yusuf and Mahmut have separated themselves from their rural homes and families. Mahmut's ex-wife Nazan (Zuhal Gencer Erkaya) is about to turn her marital separation from him into a spatial one by moving overseas to Canada. Mahmut has estranged himself from his own past ideals, and insulated himself from human contact in his apartment – and even the scenes which he shares with his lover (Nazan Kirilmis) are chillingly silent and dispassionate. Though Mahmut and Yusuf have a common background, and share the same small domestic space, they barely communicate with each other, and literally keep the doors closed between the different rooms that they occupy. In parallel scenes, both men follow women at a distance without daring to address them – and, as a key symbol of their alienation and longing, both are seen (separately, of course) staring out over the vast gulf of water that is the Bosporus.
Ceylan also keeps his viewers at a distance by keeping dialogue to an absolute minimum (it is some eleven minutes into the film before a single word is uttered), and filming almost entirely in long shots, so that his characters seem depersonalised and engulfed by their surroundings. Even Mahmut's apartment interior, despite the presence of bright colours and radiators, is made to seem every bit as bleak and frosty as the freezing snows outside. Such warmth as there is in the film comes from its quiet observational humour, although even this tends to laugh at, rather than with, the characters' petty foibles. Mahmut may at times be pitiable, but he is hardly likeable, and Yusuf, for all the charm of his wide-eyed bumbling, is clearly a Mahmut in the making.
At Cannes in 2003, 'Uzak' won the Grand Prix, and its two unknown leads became joint winners of the best actor prize – posthumously in the case of Emin Toprak, who was killed in a car accident soon after the film was finished – all of which launched this hyper low budget, small-scale production onto the international arthouse circuit. Ceylan has stated publicly his desire to emulate the Japanese master of domestic minimalism, Ozu, and there are scenes in 'Uzak' which clearly also align it to the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, renowned for his long silent takes and restrained artistry (the character Mahmut is an express admirer of Tarkovsky, even if he prefers pornography) – yet while those earlier directors offered a stunning economy where not a single moment seemed out of place, the scenes in Ceylan's film are too episodic to be integral, and a reduction or even multiplication of their length or number would make little difference to the film's overall impact. There are, it is true, many moments to savour in 'Uzak', but by the time it is over, many viewers will feel that it, like Yusuf, has outstayed its welcome.
It's Got: Low-key performances, long takes in long shot; some haunting imagery (in particular the shot of Yusuf trudging past a grounded, snow-covered shipwreck on his way to seek employment as a sailor); longing, melancholy and some restrained humour.
It Needs: To be tighter in its construction - long static sequences certainly have their place (just look at the films of Ozu, Tarkovsky or Bela Tarr), but if the omission of one or several of these sequences would seem to make little difference to the overall film, it is surely time to rethink plotting and structure.
DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of Dolby digital 5.1/2.0 stereo; optional English subtitles; excellent interview with writer/director Nuri Bilge Ceylan (31min) who discusses the influence of Chekhov and Ozu and his own autobiography, the close connection between comedy and tragedy, his dislike of close-ups and cuts, the process of paring down both the script and the film to its simplest form, and the sheer luck of having snow in Istanbul during the shoot; Koza (18min), a short black-and-white film by Ceylan following an elderly beekeepers hallucinatory reveries on his childhood and his wife (now either gone to the city or deceased), with a soundtrack evoking Eraserhead and imagery recalling Buñuel and Dali - more interesting, I thought, than the main feature; 42 interminable minutes of commentary-free behind-the-scenes footage, including three sequences which never made the final cut. DVD Extras Rating: 5/10
This film about alienation, isolation and boredom in an Istanbul winter may leave some viewers feeling cold.