10/9/2018 –Iran: Fish & Cat (2013)
Directed by Shahram Mokri
Iran’s film industry is yet another that I’ve been looking forward to getting to for a while, but I’ll admit it’s mostly out of stubbornness. Like Iceland, it was one of the nations I looked at back in 2015 and one that I had a specific film in mind for based on the hype around that time. Of course, that film is not an Iranian film as despite being billed as one, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an American film directed by an English-born and American raised director, starring Americans, filmed in California (still an American state much to their chagrin). Then, in 2016, another Iranian film was hyped up by the media. That film at least managed an Iranian-born director, albeit one who at the time he made the movie was British. It was also a co-production of the UK (which submitted it for Best foreign language film), Jordan (where it was filmed), and Qatar. While I’ve kept it my back pocket in case I wanted to count it for Jordan, Under the Shadow was also not a viable option. Thankfully, this year I can finally cross it off the list.
While newsreels and a few documentary films were made in the early sound era, the first feature narrative film to come out of Iran was 1930’s silent comedy Abi and Rabi. The Lor Girl would be the first sound film in 1933 and while there would be a number of films in those first few years, there were none produced between 1937 and 1947. Even after that era ended and production slowly ramped up, the quality films did not follow. The ’60s did see production of the solid 1963 documentary short The House is Black, 1965’s Brick and Mirror, and 1969’s Gheisar and The Cow. The 1970s saw the industry there achieve further critical acclaim with notable titles including Downpour, Still Life, The Cycle (which was banned for a few years), and the beginnings of Abbas Kiarostami’s career (most notably 1976’s The Report).
The Iranian Revolution brought a new wave of censorship in 1979 and the industry took another hit, especially in the first half or the decade. 1985’s The Runner started to change this around with Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? and Bashu, the Little Stranger. 1990’s Close-Up is arguably the most acclaimed work in the nation’s history, sitting at 44 and 37 on the Sight & Sound Critics and Directors polls respectively, Kiarostami’s work blending and blurring documentary and fiction in its tale of the impersonation of a director by a con artist. The ’90s would be his most successful including Through the Olive Trees, The White Balloon (which he wrote and Jafar Panahi directed), Taste of Cherry, and The Wind Will Carry Us. Iran also earned their first Oscar nomination in 1998 with Children of Heaven (from Majid Majidi who also directed The Color of Paradise) and added Panahi’s The Mirror to is roster.
This surge of critical acclaim intensified into the next century in the form of The Day I Became a Woman, Majidi’s Baran, Kiarostami’s Ten, Turtles Can Fly, and especially t Persepolis. Panahi’s This Is Not a Film and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi were both made after his ban on filmmaking in 2010 and still managed to achieve notoriety. Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly…, the Oscar winning A Separation, The Past, and the also Oscar winning The Salesman brought new levels of notability to the region.
When it comes to horror, the choices are unsurprisingly limited in a conservative country. The earliest I can find evidence of is the pre-Revolution 1961 film The Midnight Terror, with the 1975 film The Blind Owl the earliest available in any accessible form online. The next title wouldn’t be until The 29th Night in 1989 (which is available on the same site I watched today’s movie on, in unsubtitled form). Horror titles have increased in number in the past decade and the half, but they are all obscure low budget works that are little regarded. I’ve seen some praise for last year’s ZAR, but I am always skeptical of early horror reviews.
Today’s film is an exception to that trend however. While it’s been overshadowed by the two not quite Iranian horror movies, it’s the one genre film from the country to do the festival rounds and pick up some acclaim. On the surface, it’s easy to see why Fish & Cat was able to break through. The entire film is done in a single long shot, something I should have clued into earlier than I did (it becomes painfully obvious as two men track through the woods). It was also shot by Mahmoud Kalari who served as cinematographer on The Wind Will Carry Us, The Past, and A Separation. His handheld camerawork here looks great, stylishly and naturally moving from one story to the next without resorting to cheap camera tricks.
We’ve been here before, this feature and single shot horror movies, or rather two fake single shot horror movies. While I can certainly say that the major issues I had with those misguided films don’t show up here, that’s not to say there aren’t different issues to be had. I’ll start with the big one. It’s a 134-minute movie where nothing much happens. That length alone is 38 minutes longer than Russian Ark which says a lot for ambition, but for the style, it is extremely ungainly. There are few horror films which benefit from passing the two-hour mark and this is certainly not one.
After an opening that probably would have been better if it was translated (and which I later looked up to find out it was telling of the legends of a restaurant that served human meat. Four people from Tehran get lost on the way to a kite festival having made a wrong turn. Questioned by a man who demands to see their IDs and blames them for destroying their fence, it seems like the film is setting up a nice basic backwoods horror movie. The film doesn’t like things so simple as it switches through stories and time periods, occasionally using various voiceovers speaking from of events in the past tense.
The voiceovers cover for any depictions of actual horror which is an interesting if not satisfying idea. It could be more successful if there were more scenes of tension, since the few that exist are effective, but most of the film is padded with walking and conversations that don’t seem to lead anywhere. I’ll admit that art and experimental films of any genre are something of which I have little tolerance, but the horror genre is one it can integrate well with. Sadly, that’s not the case here as the film could have used something more for me despite its inventive execution.
Bonus Episode #15 – A – 2010s: Venom (2018)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer
Yes, I know its horror elements aren’t as prominent as I’d like for either this feature of the movie, but they are there. The full review is here since no one would have seen it if I buried it here and copy/pasting it seemed silly.
Next up: The 1950s as represented by the Richard Boone starring I Bury the Living.