Thursday, September 4, 2014

Review - Kuma

September 4, 2014

Kuma - Austria, 2012

Like many other films, Umut Dag’s Kuma begins with a wedding. However, unlike other films, something is off about this particular one. Maybe it is the obvious health problems of the bride’s new mother-in-law, Fatma (Nihal G. Koldas), or the fact that neither the bride nor the groom is smiling. Perhaps it is the sarcastic comment of the groom’s younger sister when a guest suggests that she’ll be the next to marry: “I’d rather eat glass.” Or maybe it’s the similarly peculiar inquiry put to the bride’s father, not Are you happy? but rather Are you satisfied? It is enough to make you wonder: Just what is going on here?

No sooner is the marriage ceremony complete, but the bride and her new family speed away, cross the Turkish border, and enter Austria. Once home, an eerie silence sweeps over the house, as if everyone is avoiding the same topic. One by one, characters disappear for the evening. There is little joy, and no one willingly offers Ayse (Begun Akkaya), the newest member of the family, welcoming parting comments. The youngest in the family, Memo, is sent to bed first. Then the family’s two sarcastic, Westernized daughters depart. Fatma soon declares her intention to get Ayse’s bed ready and leaves. In the living room sit Hasan, his father, and Ayse, yet it is Hasan that leaves next. And with that action, everything is horrifying clear. Ayse has been brought in to the family to be Fatma’s husband’s second wife, not Hasan’s first.

At this point in the film, there was so much that I wanted to ask this family, starting with many variations of the question why, and as the film progresses, we learn the answers to these questions. We learn why Fatma pursued such an action, why Hasan went along with it, and why the daughters disapprove as much as they do. It seems clear that Ayse knew what she was getting into, and we can only guess that finances led her family to agree to such an arrangement. We also see that the lie has consequences far beyond their family, for the marriage is announced to all of their acquaintances, making it impossible to reverse if subsequent events reveal it to have been a mistake.

Later, we meet other members of the family – an older daughter who has a child and is married to an abusive husband and an older son who lives in Germany and thinks of money first. Neither one of them approves of Ayse, the former even suggesting that she could have taken on all of the responsibilities that Ayse is now handling. This character is complex, for we feel her frustration and hurt, yet her negativity never fully earns her our complete support. Sadly, there are subtle hints that Fatwa blames her daughter for the plight she now finds herself in. At one point, Fatwa even tells her that Ayse “understands how to be a wife and mother,” implying that she would not have her present problems if she had the same degree of understanding. It is in moments like these that we clearly see Fatwa’s preference for “the old way” and her disapproval of more modern thinking.

There is a pattern to films such as this one, and for the most part, Kuma does not break that pattern. There is the expected initial hostility that Ayse must content with, yet eventually we know that she’ll win them over with her kindness and hard work. Here, she has to be a little confrontational and add a bit of name-calling, but that just serves to endear her to the people giving her the hardest time. Throughout this part of the film, there are sweet moments in which small actions, such as her studying a book of German phrases and giving Memo some much needed words of comfort, begin the melt the family’s hardest hearts, and we get the feeling that at least a part of the family is coming together. However, Kuma diverges from the established pattern of these kinds of films in key ways. When death comes, it is not to whom we expected it to, and, as the film progresses, Ayse’s position in the family becomes more precarious instead of increasingly secure. It seems nothing comes easy in this house.

The film is very well-acted, and Akkaya and Koldas play off each other extremely well. Also, commendable is Murathan Muslu, who plays Hasan. He and Akkaya have a scene together that is utterly heartbreaking. I also appreciated how Dag and screenwriter Petra Ladinigg are able to give viewers a complete picture of Ayse’s situation – of not just her home life, but also her relationship with Fatwa’s acquaintances, her eventual co-workers, and her new country. By doing so, viewers get a sense of just how difficult it is for Anye to unjust and trust and just how much is at stake if she fails.

If the film has a fault, it is its final act, which sticks to closely to the established pattern of films of this sort, and audiences will no doubt be able to predict events before they occur. While this is regrettable, it does lead to a finale that is shocking, difficult to watch, and, ultimately, mind-boggling. At first, it made my head spin, forcing me to return to the question I began the film with. Yet the more I thought of it, the more logical it became. In a way, it brings the film full circle, completing Fatma’s wishes, while simultaneously showing just how much of a mistake they were. Kuma stayed with me for some time after I finished it. I pondered it and replayed key scenes in my mind, and, in the end, it all made sense. Its fragmented pieces fit together all so terribly well. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 and a half stars

*Kuma is in German and Turkish with English subtitles.
*Kuma does not appear to be available in the United States.

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