29 November 2008

The forsaken land (Sulanga enu pinisa)
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written and directed by Vimukthi Jayasundra
2005 / color / 108 minutes (plus bonus items)
Sinhala with optional English subtitles
DVD from New Yorker Video, 2008

The forsaken land is a film at once strikingly beautiful and jarringly disturbing – writer / director Vimukthi Jayasundara demonstrates in this, his first feature, that he can be expected to be a visionary force that will both enthrall and shake audiences for the remainder of a career that, it can be hoped, will be a long and productive one. Taking as his subject no less than that of the effects of war and strife on not only individuals, but on humanity as a whole, and by extrapolation the very planet we inhabit, his work stands up to the task at hand very well indeed. There are images here – and the deeper thoughts which they inspire – that will remain with the viewer for years to come.

FL Jayasundara
A society ruled by war will always look for a solution,
be it through war or peace.
This film was conceived as a poem, where shots substitute for words.
– Vimukthi Jayasundra

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Set in Sri Lanka, which has been torn apart for over thirty years by a civil war that eats away at the people and society like a cancer, Jayasundara’s film draws the audience into the lives and souls of his characters. There is little dialogue – in fact, the first spoken words occur some thirteen minutes or so into the film – but volumes are communicated in the subtle nuances present in life itself, which among the arts only cinema, through its inherent combination of elements, can translate so accurately into palpable feelings. A look, a gesture, a sigh – the very landscape itself, a village on the edge of a wasteland – convey the desperation, tension, societal and emotional isolation and alienation that are the horrible byproducts of an existence lived in a constant state of war…or, in the case of this film, a truce that is so fragile that even the audience senses that outright hostilities could break out again at any time. The recurring image of a tank at twilight, prowling the area at a crawl, stopping now and then, its turret slowly casting its single threatening eye about the landscape is enough to make one hold one’s breath in anticipation. Without a shot being fired throughout the length of the film, the sense of danger is no less than if bullets were flying all around. This is truly life lived walking the edge of the proverbial razor.
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The characters at the center of this agonizingly grinding maelstrom are few. Anura is a young man who is apparently in the hire of the military as a guard, but not actually in the army. His wife Latá is a restless, beautiful young woman who finds their interrupted relationship unfulfilling, leading her to seek companionship on the sly. Living with them is Anura’s unmarried sister Somá, who although seemingly the only character who is both grounded and aware of their circumstances, is resented by Latá but adored as a mother figure by Batti, a young pre-adolescent girl who lives nearby. In one particularly poignant and telling exchange, she speaks with Somá of her future – instead of saying ‘when I grow up’, she says ‘if I grow up’, a painful reminder of the pointed uncertainty under which they all live. Piyasiri is an older man who shares guard duty with Anura and regales the wide-eyed Batti with folk tales, one of which sheds both light and darkness on their communal past. The story has not-too-cloaked parallels with the reality they inhabit.
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The war itself – or at least the sense that it lurks in such proximity that one can hear its panting breath – is as much a character as the human beings in this film. There may be a cease-fire in place, but people disappear and killings occur at night, to be discovered when the sun casts its weary eyes on the scarred land once more. The director’s incredible compositional prowess packs quite a punch – a darkened pond, with heavy clouds obscuring almost all of the available moonlight, reveals the stiff arm of a corpse seemingly sprouting like the water-based vegetation around it. Latá awakens from a restless afternoon nap, clearly in a state of emotional and sexual clamor, to methodically throw open the shutters of the house – the wind almost rips a couple of them out of her hands, exemplifying her hopelessness in controlling her desires and thoughts, blowing through the rooms like a beast in the hunt.

When Anura and Latá are awakened in the middle of the night by a pounding on their door, the young man responds and receives a command from a soldier that will change his life forever – there are things those who serve are called to perform that will linger in their mind and soul until the day they die. The helplessness he feels, the rending of his sense of self, are as real as if they were occurring to us as we watch the events play out. Afterwards, as he runs toward his home in the moonlight, seeing physically but blinded by the trauma of what he has experienced, he stumbles and collapses into the dirt, laying his face against the earth as if to reassure himself that it is still there. It’s one of the most harrowing, piercing images of the film – and one that exemplifies the feeling of being ripped from all of the normal aspects of life, with little hope of ever regaining them. One reviewer wrote that the characters seem to be sleepwalking through the film – not implying any sort of ‘wooden’ acting, but that the horror of their existence has numbed them almost to the point of being animatons. Their pain is real, but it has become so great that it has replaced happiness and fulfillment as the compass by which they navigate their lives.
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War is inarguably a horrible environment, whatever its intensity or form – out-and-out direct combat, guerilla war, or the war conducted by shadows under cover of darkness. It traumatizes all of those it touches – combatants and innocents alike – in ways that will affect them physically, psychologically and emotionally for the rest of their lives. Vimukthi Jayasundara has seen that trauma, and has eloquently and poetically translated it into a film that is both jaw-droppingly beautiful and viscerally haunting. It won the prestigious Camera d’or award – given for outstanding first directorial feature – at the Cannes festival in 2005. It’s available in the US through New Yorker Video, so it should be fairly easy to find either for rental or purchase – pass it up at your peril. It’s absolutely one of the most stunning works of cinema I’ve seen in the last ten years.

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