Original release: July 20th, and 2002
Running time: 110 minutes
Country of origin: Turkey
Original language: Turkish with English subtitles
Writer and director: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
Cast: Muzaffer Özdemir, Mehmet Emin Toprak
World cinema can, at the best of times, throw up a gem that’s so far removed from Western, and specifically Hollywood, filmmaking that it feels like a breath of fresh air. In the last decade we’ve seen films like Kim Ki-duk’s surreal almost silent romance 3 Iron, the majestic roaming black and white camera of Bela Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies and the dreamlike study of memory in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes And A Century.
With Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 2002 film, Uzak, we’re once again treated to something that would – and perhaps could – never be created by the Los Angeles Dream Factory. Despite being a decade old now, Uzak also feels entirely appropriate for a modern audience. Given the recent state of the economic environment and events that have highlighted a disaffection of some of modern society’s youth – the UK’s rioting being the major example – the film feels entirely pertinent. Although it’s not about societal discontent, explicitly or otherwise, the characters are suitably vexed.
Uzak sees Mahmut (Muzaffer Özdemir), a successful photographer in Istanbul, who’s become bored with his life, living a mostly despondent existence. His ex-wife’s preparing to move to Canada with her new husband, he feels his profession’s dying and he knows his mother is. All the while he carries on an affair with a married woman, which seems to be at best unsatisfactory, and at worst unhappy. Arriving in Istanbul to disrupt Mahmut’s mostly lazy and dejected days is Yusuf (Mehmet Emin Toprak), a young man from their hometown who’s come to stay with him whilst looking for work as a merchant sailor.
Yusuf’s lost his job after the factory in the town was closed, laying off 1,000 workers,. His dream is to sail the world and earn lots of money while doing it. Mahmut asks him whether he’s considered how lonely that life will be; a somewhat ironic question, given the way that the two of them go about their lives.
I’ve heard Ceylan’s style described as glacial and this is absolutely how Uzak plays out. Rather than feeling like it’s just an artistic style here though, the pacing of the film and the long lingering cuts are entirely required. By watching our protagonists go about their empty and depressing lives in such slow and long takes we’re given much more insight into their turmoil.
Whilst Yusuf claims to be out looking for jobs and being rejected time and again, what we actually see as he walks the snow-laden streets of the city, is a man utterly lost in this modern world. He does make contact with a merchant sailor who tells him that there’s no money to be had in that line of work and that he should look elsewhere, though this seems not to dissuade him; neither does a sign in a window stating that there are no jobs which he reads before entering the office and asking for one.
This snowy Istanbul, a far cry from how we normally expect to see the city on film, is a desolate place that Yusuf slowly navigates, sometimes just wandering. Other times he follows an attractive girl, though he never plucks up the courage to speak to them. The one time he really has the chance to speak to Mahmut’s pretty neighbour he’s tongue-tied and they stand in awkward silence. Back in the house Mahmut lives an equally unfulfilling existence; his shelves are filled with books and he has a love of Bach and Tarkovsky, but he spends his time watching television ad infinitum and screening calls from his ailing mother.
This routine is interrupted by Yusuf, much to Mahmut’s consternation as he notices that Yusuf’s shoes smell and that he never puts them away, or that Yusuf has been smoking in the living room. When we realise that Yusuf is probably the closet thing Mahmut has, or is likely to have, to a friend, it’s unquestionably sad.
A photography trip to Anatolia, on which he takes Yusuf along for the ride, seems to inspire them both a little and at one point they stop the car and Mahmut remarks how beautiful the countryside is and outlines the perfect shot he could get from that location. But by the time his helper can get the camera out of the car he says “Fuck it. Why bother?” and back they go to their mundane city lives.
Despite how bleak a picture I may have painted there’s a lot to enjoy in Uzak. It’s funny despite the malaise that’s set over its characters. There’s a scene in which the two men watch a long scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker and as soon as this bores Yusuf and he goes to bed, his host immediately switches it for porn. When initially trying to impress the pretty neighbour, Yusuf accidentally leans on a car setting the alarm off and there’s a mouse living (and trapped) in the kitchen of the flat. Mahmut is eternally trying to catch it with some glue and tape across the doorway; mirroring his own contained life.
Even when things are at their most slow and barren, the beauty of the film is also to be admired. In particular there is a spectacular shot of a tanker that’s run aground in the port and is now abandoned and snow-covered when Yusuf comes across it. Not set up or added by the film crew, this was really there and used by Ceylan to great effect. It may be suggestive of economic decline, of the dereliction of the city and modern society, of Yusuf and Mahmut running aground themselves, but ultimately it’s the visual splendour which stays with us, as with much of the movie.
Uzak is not likely to be to everyone’s tastes given it’s pace and lack of a driving plot, and the unapologetically open ending. If these things don’t put you off though, then it’s a masterpiece and something which I can imagine will just get better and better with every watch.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.