Neil Young’s Film Lounge – Uzak

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

UZAK

8/10

aka Distant : Turkey 2003 : Nuri Bilge CEYLAN : 109 mins

Faced with the grim prospect of joblessness in his recession-hit village, Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak) journeys to a snowy Istanbul. While looking for work on the ships that dock in the harbour, he temporarily moves in with older cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Ozdemir), a professional photographer. But there are no jobs to be had, and Yusuf spends much of his time wandering the streets in search of romance – but love is also thin on the ground. His presence gradually gets on his cousin’s nerves. Though relatively well-off financially, the inexpressive Mahmut has problems of his own. His ex-wife Nazan (Zugal Gencer Erkaya) is about to emigrate with her new husband, and his mother (Fatma Ceylan) is taken ill. Pressures mount.

UzakThe Fipresci Grand Prix is awarded annually by the members of the international film critics’ federation, and has been won by All About My Mother (1999), Magnolia (2000), The Circle (2001) and The Man Without A Past (2002). In 2003 this august company was joined by Uzak, which had previously won the Grand Prix du Jury (i.e. the runner-up prize, behind Elephant) at Cannes. Best Actor at the festival was shared between the film’s two leads – Toprak’s success was posthumous, as he’d been killed in a car accident weeks before.

It isn’t surprising that Uzak – which Variety magazine called ‘an arthouse film par excellence’ – should find such favour among the world’s more highbrow critics. It’s been very well-travelled on the world film-festival circuit, and would therefore have been seen by nearly all Fipresci members. Ceylan’s previous films (The Small Town [1997] and Clouds of May [2002]) established his name, and alongside the works of Zeki Demirkubuz (Cannes ’02 selections Fate and Confession), Turkey seems poised to enjoy a cinematic prominence not seen since the heyday of Yilmaz Guney – the writer of Yol (aka The Way) which won the Cannes Grand Prix in 1982 (and was, by the way, described by Chris Petit in Time Out as being “a story about the tragedy of distances.”)

Guney’s arthouse fame derived partly from the remarkable circumstances of his life. A political agitator – and political prisoner – for many years, he effectively ‘directed’ Yol from jail (Serif Goren was officially credited as director). Ceylan doesn’t have quite such an exotic CV – perhaps inevitable, given how Turkey has made such a smooth transition to (relatively) prosperous democracy in the last two decades, thanks to the efforts of Guney and company.

But Ceylan is an admirable and striking ‘one-man band’ of a film-maker. As well as directing and writing Uzak, he is the sole producer (the film is from NBC films – they’re his initials, and bear no link with the American broadcaster) and cinematographer, and he edited the film in collaboration with Ayhan Ergusel. There’s no score in Uzak, but if there had been Ceylan would doubtless have done the music as well.

Uzak‘s phenomenal critical reception also derives from the fact that it’s so open to so many multiple interpretations, and to so much intellectual analysis (which must acknowledge that the film’s real ‘substance’ is ineffable, mysterious, unsummarisable). Though the ‘plot’ is quite simple, even the most casual cinemagoer will be aware that Ceylan is dealing with significant themes here: the use of an abstract noun for the title is the most obvious clue to the seriousness of his intent. The word itself surfaces only once in the script: during a telephone conversation Nazan apologises for having been somewhat “distant” with Mahmut when they last met face-to-face. But Mahmut is himself “distance” personified: he’s an impassive closed-circuit, keeping life at one or two removes (which is perhaps how he’s able to get by in the impersonal Big City). When the relatively youthful, boorish, exuberant (and thick) Yusuf arrives on the scene, Mahmut finds life getting uncomfortably close – until he’s finally forced into evasive action.

Though the film begins with Yusuf’s departure from his village, this is essentially a character-study of Mahmut: and he’s by no means any kind of sympathetic ‘hero’. In fact, he’s deliberately presented as an off-putting, selfish, cold, eminently dislikeable sort, happiest when arranging the props for his photo-shoots. And these arrangements are conspicuously devoid of organic life: though he had (and still has) artistic pretensions, Mahmut makes his living by creating mildly pretentious advertisements for tiles.

Despite moments of unexpected humour, Uzak is very much the gloomy, morose kind of film which Mahmut would himself have made – he once hoped to be “like Tarkovsky”, and we see him watching a couple of the Russian maestro’s films. Such conspicuous Tarkovsky-referencing represents audacious and risky strategy from relative-novice Ceylan – but he has the talent to withstand such a daunting comparison. Both on the small, specific scale (there’s a terrific, straight-from-Tarkovsky silent coup de cinema involving a falling room-lamp) and the large: Uzak is a beautifully composed piece of work, with meticulous attention paid to the placement of objects, people and buildings within the frame.

If his directing and writing skills weren’t enough, Ceylan is also a terrific cinematographer – though he’d surely admit that his efforts here were undeniably boosted by nature: Istanbul unexpectedly “enjoyed” its worst (and therefore most picturesque) snowfall for many years during the course of the filming. Further good fortune arrived in the form of a large ship run aground on one of the docks, a striking background feature which, according to the director, every film-maker active in the city during this period took pains to somehow incorporate.

Ceylan certainly doesn’t shy away from symbolism: as well as the marooned wreck, we are invited to ponder on the meaning of such images as a scruffy black mouse trapped to a gluey piece of paper, wriggling and squealing; later, Mehmet sits on a park bench as scrap paper and plastic bags swirl past in the breeze. O tempora, o mores… All very significant, all very depressing. But while Uzak occasionally strains for its effects, the film is mostly notable for its austere restraint. The sound design (by Ismail Karadas – not Ceylan!) is particularly subtle and effective. Even with eyes closed, viewers will be able to detect the exact mood and tempo of each scene, so expert is the control of each sound we hear: the nearby and, most of all, the distant.

21st June, 2004
(seen 20th June : Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle-upon-Tyne : public show)

by Neil Young