By Robert Koehler
Missing a film for eleven months since its premiere, particularly if it won an overrated but nevertheless weighty prize like Berlinale’s Golden Bear, can create an odd mix of sensations, with frustration (how I missed it in Berlin in the first place) to excessive anticipation (from the sheer wait). It can’t be allowed to cloud judgement, but it’s a challenge to sweep away when the film is finally seen. That was what I was going through this morning with the first screening in Palm Springs of Semih Kaplanoglu’s Honey, the final part of his Yusuf trilogy (preceded by Egg and Milk).
I knew that it would likely be good, since Derek Elley roundly dismissed it out of hand in Variety at Berlin in a variation of his usual demotion of art cinema: “grindingly slow, content-light fare for card-carrying minimalists…the viewer has no idea what the main characters are thinking or feeling…the real star of the picture is writer-director Kaplanoglu–which would be OK if he had anything to share with auds apart from auteurist mannerisms” blah, blah, blah…topped by Elley incorrectly identifying the trilogy as the “Honey, Milk, Egg” trilogy, after correctly identifying it in his review of Milk, which he almost identically dismissed in similar terms, in that “the minimalist crowd will lap this up,” or his previous slam of Egg, which is “pure fest fare for the long-take, minimalist crowd.”
Which raises a thought: I would like to meet this minimalist crowd, these “card-carrying” types–a telling variation on Joseph McCarthy’s notorious, Red-baiting handle “card-carrying Communists” from the politically rightwing Elley. I would truly like to know who these card-carriers are, where they live, where they go to have a meal, enjoy a late-night drink…I suppose they’re somewhere. Elley apparently knows something we don’t…..A generally good rule of thumb at festivals is that anything Elley hates is usually good, and anything he loves is usually bad. (I know this from several years as a Variety colleague of Elley’s, before he was unceremoniously let go as Variety‘s chief international film critic in 2010. His decade-long dismissal of Jia Zhang-ke, film after film, starting with Pickpocket, is just one of several Elley doozies that the festival-goer can take as a useful contrarian indicator.)
So, yes, applying the highly reliable counter-Elley metric, Honey is good. It is not, however, great, and there’s plenty of room to debate whether it deserved the Golden Bear. After all, it was up against such films as Benjamin Heisenberg’s The Robber, Rafi Pitts’ The Hunter (also in Palm Springs), Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Wakamatsu’s Caterpillar, and even in a fairly humdrum competition lineup, it can’t be said that Kaplanoglu’s film was the obvious or even correct choice. Very much a classical art film, from what I hear in line with the previous films in the trilogy (which I haven’t seen), Honey continues the filmmaker’s interest in a compact story and a small gallery of characters, placed against a huge physical background. The Yusuf of Egg and Milk is now younger; the trilogy depicts a Yusuf–though, it should be stressed, not necessarily the same Yusuf–in reverse chronological age. ”
Honey, therefore, would be perfectly fine to view first if the viewer hasn’t caught up with the rest of the trilogy, thus reversing Kaplanoglu’s reverse chronology into chronological order. The setting for the new film is more or less in the present, though depicting life at an early 20th century pace in a remote, mountainous region of Turkey that uncannily resembles Switzerland. Yusuf (Bora Altas) is so alienated from his schoolmates that he doesn’t play with them during breaks and has enormous difficulty reading a simple phrase or sentence in class; his intense shyness extends to home, where he’s unable to speak much at all to his mother (Tulin Ozen), from whom he feels an enormous emotional distance, and speaks to his more beloved dad, a sturdy beekeeper (Erdal Besikcioglu), in a whisper. Kaplanoglu isn’t interested in the psychology of this, which will put off literalists (do we dare refer to them as “the literalist crowd”?), but in the existential moment. He dwells almost entirely upon Yusuf, in all of his various moments, which extend most critically to his dream states, which the film visualizes in a highly oblique manner and often without warning or any of the conventional devices filmmakers use to signal the audience.
Kaplanoglu gets too cute by half with this trick (which it is, make no mistake) at a key juncture, when his father has left for an extended trek to search for healthy bee colonies since the local ones appear sick and dying (one of the few truly contemporary details in the story) and has been away for much too long for the family’s comfort. Kaplanoglu cuts to an image of the father hanging by a rope from a tree, followed by the branch holding the rope breaking and releasing him to an airborne death. This is actually a continuation of the film’s stunning opening scene, when the father is seen entering a thick copse, observing honey dripping from the tree, and rope-climbing up the trunk to his prize when the branch gives way, leaving him suspended in mid-air in a sublime cinematic fermata. Once he’s resumed the scene and its terrible conclusion, Kaplanoglu then cuts to Yusuf waking up startled, as if he dreamt it. Or is it an indicator that Yusuf’s dreams foretell what’s to happen, a kind of psychic gift? Either, I suppose, can be read, but to what end isn’t clear from anything else in Honey, and plays more as a distraction from the central matter, which is a young boy is going to go on without the father he deeply loved.
This essential theme is quite enough for the film, but it also lacks the necessary weight that Kaplanoglu’s Fordian mise-en-scene wants to convey, until the final sequence, in which Yusuf ventures into the same dark copse we were at the beginning, now even darker (little light hits the screen, recalling the darkness that descends over the final moments of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, a film and director hugely influential on Kaplanoglu. It’s not, as the Elley crowd–and oh, what a crowd that is–just go to Cannes any old year and see them in action–would have it, “content-free,” which is sheer nonsense. It’s that, at this point in his work, Kaplanoglu is reaching for existential truths of identity and being, including a sense of a person’s place in the natural and domestic worlds, that aren’t entirely within his grasp.
He is also certainly not a minimalist, whatever that is, but rather a symbolic storyteller fascinated by repeated rituals of behavior (Yusuf’s constant eyeing of a glass bowl containing red ribbon prizes given to students for good class work, his running after his father’s pet falcon in flight) and the physical realities of being cut off from the normal flow of society: Yusuf’s house, we finally see in a remarkable left-to-right high-angle pan shot about two-thirds of the way through Honey, is as far above and apart from their village as he is from his frolicking schoolmates. There’s an artist building here, and whatever card he carries, it will be interesting to see what he does next.