Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 05, 2015 3:31 pm 
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Kafka's "The Castle" literally transposed to Mongolia

"If Jia Zhangke produced it, it has to be good," wrote a writer for the online GBTimes] surveying the stingily titled K among Berlin Festival offerings. But this turns not to be somewhat overoptimistic for this purely academic translation of Kafka's unfinished novel The Castle/Das Schloß to a Mongolian setting by Mongolian arts graduate and TV documentary filmmaker Darhad Erenibulag and Inner-Mongolia-based Welsh screenwriter Emyr ap Richard, who collaborated on this pared down version set in a dingy hotel with an indigenous cast.

As longtime film critic Derek Elley comments on Film Business Asia, this largely literal Kafka adaptation winds up feeling "pointless" because the way it is staged is so "dramatically flat": it "lacks any sense of tension," redeemed by only a slight "strain of dry humor." Ap Richard and Erenibulag have done little more than used a minimal location and transposed their pared-down version of the story and characters to an different country and an unusual language. It may appeal to students of the exotic, but it will disappoint because the exoticism is skin deep, with no special penetration into the Kafkaesque experience or perception of its special relevance to this new milieu. Fans of Orson Welles' brilliantly imaginative 1962 screen adaptation of Kafka's The Trial will find it unchallenged.

The cast list gives only one name for the actors. Bayin, whose Seventies-style big hair is an inexplicable indulgence, plays K, the stranger who arrives in a town announcing he has been hired by the Castle as a land surveyor. He is told there's no job for him, and lingers on working as a school janitor and taking the barmaid Frieda (Jula) as his mistress, and so on and on. Among the more flavorful cast members, Zandaraa and Altanochir, as as Jeremias and Artur, K's "assistants," with slick hair and leather jackets, have a louche sleaziness. Nomindalai is striking-looking as Barnabas.

In an effort to build atmosphere, the filmmakers make use of claustrophobic shots of narrow hallways lined by closed-off rooms, lobbies and hazy, smoke-filled bar-lounge in various shades of white, green and blue. Much use is made of tinny old swing band records, cigars, and cigar smoke. The jumble of different period indicators include telegrams, a dark orange rotary telephone, and a large plane soaring overhead. French cinematographer and editor Matthieu Laclau delivers some surprising jolts. Best of these are times when K has been having sex with Frieda and awakes to find his snickering assistants, and others, sitting there in the same room. Laclau achieves nice color and his camerawork shows off the actors and the claustrophobic settings with a neutral attractiveness. There are even a couple of nice dream-like sequences. The filmmakers choose to make the intricate, shabby network of hallways and rooms deliberately confusing, eschewing Kafka's sense of looming, menacing spaces signaled by the novel title The Castle. They never show anything comparable to a castle or even a village: nearly everything is shot indoors.

K, 88 mins., made in China, debuted at Berlin February 2015. Screened for this review as part of the FSLC-MoMA series New Directors/New Films March 2015. A Hong Kong Festival showing is also scheduled. The film is available open-source via Facebook on Vimeo. There seem to have been no major reviews.

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