The new film from Nuri Bilge Ceylan is due to open in the UK this Friday and last night we watched his 2002 film which I think was his breakthrough with arthouse audiences over here. I remember watching it without knowing anything about the director and being very impressed back in 2004 when it finally reached London after winning prizes at Cannes in 2003.
My strongest memories of the film were the compositions of one of the two principal characters, Yusuf (Emin Toprak) isolated in the snowy urban landscapes of Istanbul. This was the third film by Ceylan (co-writer and director) to feature Toprak with Muzaffer Özdemir. Soon after completing the film Toprak was killed in a car crash, a tragedy that would also ultimately change the director’s approach to casting. In Uzak, Özdemir plays Mahmut, a village boy who has built up a successful career in Istanbul as a photographer. Yusuf is his country cousin who is forced out of his village by redundancy and comes to Istanbul seeking work on a ship. Mahmut is a rather reluctant host, a divorced man stuck in his ways who thinks of his cousin as something of a country bumpkin. The film’s title refers to the ‘distance’ in culture between the village and the big city – and the potential distance between the two cousins.
The film is strong on metaphors and symbols. Istanbul looks wonderful cloaked in thick snow and Ceylan knows just how to make use of the possibilities it offers as Yusuf wanders forlornly around the waterfront looking for work. At the end of one hopeless trip he stares down at a bowl of small fishes one of which has fallen from the bowl and is thrashing about in a puddle – we know how he feels. Back in Mahmut’s flat the two men do battle with a mouse in the kitchen with sometimes hilarious outcomes but the inference is clear. The country mouse has come to town and the town mouse doesn’t know quite how to react.
In his use of two non-professionals as leads, Ceylan is using men he knows (he often used other members of his family in his early films) and he has admitted that the early films are autobiographical to some extent (for instance, Muzaffer appears as both a filmmaker in Clouds of May (1999) and a photographer here, mirroring Ceylan’s activities. I’m not sure whether Mahmut’s rather wonderful flat is actually Ceylan’s but we do see a poster for Ceylan’s first film, a short titled Koza on Mahmut’s wall. If Mahmut is in any way ‘representative’ of the director, it is a brave self-examination because Mahmut is certainly a man with flaws. He has become the isolated and alienated intellectual who has even lost interest in the art form that drove him in his career. The film sets up a nice contrast between Yusuf’s traditional community-orientated values and Mahmut’s disdain for family and friends. But it also hints at the possibility that Yusuf could end up like Mahmut if he spends too much time in the city. In this sense the scenes in which both men (separately) stare out across the Bosphorus from the waterfront remind us of the key geographical and cultural location of Turkey, looking out to Europe and beyond and back into the hinterland of Western Asia.
The film is slow-paced but never dull. I never felt it dragged and that is down to Ceylan’s fine visual sense (he photographed the film himself), enough humour to spice up the observation of the characters and two fine central performances that won the pair a joint acting prize at Cannes.