Winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes 2003 with a joint award for both male leads as Best Actor at the festival, it’s hard to argue with the critical acclaim for Turkish director Nuri Bilge Celyan’s Uzak (“Distant”). Drawing ideas from his own life, using non-professional actors from friends and family members, producing, writing, directing, filming, editing and promoting his work independently, Ceylan exercises complete control over what appears on the screen, but doesn’t quite shake off or even live up to the influences that direct his vision.
With the country in recession and hundreds of workers being laid off from the factory in his village, Yusuf (Mehmut Emin Toprak) comes to Istanbul looking for work, hoping to get a job with one of the shipping companies in the port. He stays with his cousin Mahmut (Muzaffer Özadamir), a photographer. Yusuf’s intention is to spend a few days there until he can find work, but as the days drag into weeks, he remains unemployed. Mahmut has his own problems. With a sick mother and a divorced wife, he seems to cut himself off from the emotional impact of his troubles and no longer seems connected to his work. The two men try to get by despite the daily setbacks, despite the petty annoyances of living with another person. As Yusuf tries to reconnect with a world that has excluded him, looking for a job and looking for love, his cousin is withdrawing from life, finding nothing but emptiness in either of these things.
There is a bit of Béla Tarr and a bit of Tarkovsky influence in the long contemplative takes, oblique silences and in a dialogue which is reduced to pure functional expression, but there is little of the idiosyncrasy of those directors in the imagery employed to reflect the characters interior lives. The hull of a huge boat overturned in the harbour, the desolation and apparent incongruity of the bleak snowfall (a snowscape is not the image you would normally associate with exotic Istanbul), a miserable little mouse caught in a trap and put out of its misery – the relevance of these images to the characters’ circumstance is clear and effective, but hardly original. All the long, silent, contemplative staring off into the distance does get a bit wearisome however and keeps the viewer as distant from these characters as they are distant from everyday life. The film directly references Tarkovsky a couple of times by name and with a brief dream sequence reminiscent of Mirror. Ironically, having Mahmut watch on TV the famous sequence of the men entering The Zone in Tarkovsky’s Stalker only underlines the effectiveness of Tarkovsky’s technique and the comparative banality of Ceylan’s.
Comparisons to Chekhov and Dostoevsky are similarly inappropriate and unhelpful towards establishing the director’s own identity, as they are artists whose work is in an entirely different medium with an understanding of human behaviour and interaction far beyond anything demonstrated in Uzak. A guy staring into space smoking a cigarette is a guy staring into space smoking a cigarette. If a viewer wants to read something into that, that is an entirely valid response. A better director with a better actor could make something more of this (Bergman with von Sydow for example, Ozu with Chishu Ryu or Wong Kar-Wai with Tony Leung) but it can hardly be compared to the layers of meaning and complexity of character described in the works of the greatest of Russian writers. There is certainly humanity shown here and some degree of humour to be found in the everyday situations of the characters, but I can’t see the levels of truth and complexity that some critics have found in the film.
Artificial Eye do it again with a superb transfer that really does justice to the film’s look. On a dual-layer disc with a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer, colours are strong and the image is sharp and detailed. There is no sign of edge-enhancement and grain is kept at a natural level. There are some minor instances of moiré shimmer on roof-tiles and the occasional flicker of a frame, but generally the image remains stable. Dust marks can be seen now and again, but not in any great amount.
The DVD comes with a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 mixes. The actual sound quality is good, clear and audible throughout with no distracting noise. The 5.1 mix is certainly active across all speakers with the atmospheric moans of distant dogs and squealing mice, but it’s not significantly better than the straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mix and actually comes across as slightly overactive and a little artificial. I’ve given Artificial Eye a hard time in the past about not providing the original surround mixes for films, giving only the option of the stereo mix, but it looks like when they do include the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix it doesn’t particularly enhance the film to any great extent. They can’t win on this one.
Interview with Nuri Bilge Ceylan (30:42)
The director talks about the autobiographical elements of the film (he was once a photographer himself), and the “home-made” aspect of his films in his writing, producing, directing, editing roles, the use of his own home as the central location of the film and the use of friends and their experiences in building the film. He gives some background on Turkey and the circumstances of the people of Istanbul and mentions some deleted scenes including, surprisingly, an excised murder plot. Describing and giving his interpretation of some scenes here also serves well as an alternative to a scene-specific commentary.
Short Film: Koza (17:41)
The director’s first work from 1995, Koza (“Cocoon”) is a short film that is painfully derivative of Tarkovsky’s Mirror in imagery, in heightened sound effects and in the score. In this respect it is fascinating, but there is nothing here that shows any personal or individual stamp. The black and white film is presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio, without dialogue and is of reasonably good quality.
Behind The Scenes (42:20)
A long ‘making of’ gives ample indication of the quick and improvised style of the small crew, shown filming a number of scenes, followed by the final scene as shown in the film. One unused scene can also be seen here. The director can also be seen prepping the actors in detail about their characters and their motivations in certain scenes. This is far too long though and mostly unnecessary, but if you are interested in seeing the director at work, this is in-depth and detailed.
Filmographies are included for the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and for the actors Mehmut Emin Toprak (who died in December 2002 and was awarded Best Actor at Cannes posthumously) and Muzaffer Özadamir.
Judging from critical reaction to this film, Uzak is regarded as either a masterpiece or a boring piece of arthouse cinema where nothing happens. I don’t think it’s either – there’s fine observation in the characters, their interaction and in the depiction of the central distance between them that is ultimately tragic in that the breach is insurmountable. At the same time though, it does depict the monotony of these characters lives and that is indeed itself monotonous and drawn-out. In the hands of a master like Bergman, Tarkovsky or Ozu much could be made of this kind of situation, but Ceylan, on the evidence of Uzak alone, is not in that league. The DVD presentation of the film is superb, with good picture and sound quality and extensive supporting features.