A group of Iranian friends go on holiday to the Caspian region in order to participate in the annual kite-flying competition. But little do they know, they've set up camp close to strange and sinister cooks Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar).
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: It’s easy to praise Iranian director Shahram Mokri’s Fish & Cat for its conceptual daring and technical achievement – it’s filmed in a single take with occasional time shifts and surrealistic episodes incorporated into the shot – and much harder to sit through its agonisingly slow and repetitive 134 minutes.
Mokri sets up viewers to expect a slasher film, then toys with that idea in increasingly frustrating ways. That this is far less compelling than it may sound to more adventurous viewers has a lot to do with Mokri’s leaden pacing, the film’s visual monotony and drabness, the endlessly tedious dialogue, and failure to develop its themes, including a very current Iranian interest in exile, in a resonant manner.
At the start is what seems to be an Iranian answer to the American cabin in the woods horror flick. Outside a ramshackle diner on the edge of a bleak and wintry forest two men, Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar), discuss what appear to be sinister plans for obtaining more meat. (A news item in the prologue has told us of a supposedly real life case where a restaurant used human flesh.) When the inevitable carload of young travelers stops by to ask for directions, one of the youngsters is sized up as a potential victim before he and his friends are allowed to go on their way.
Until this point the film has looked like a realist and very doom-laden equivalent of last year’s inspired Australian horror spoof, 100 Bloody Acres, but then it heads into an unexpected direction as the two creepy men head into the woods with a plastic bag of rancid meat – presumably human flesh – and a canister of petrol. It appears they are planning to burn the evidence, but whatever their intended mission, they seem unable to finish it, trudging onwards endlessly till the camera eventually moves onto a previously unseen father and son in the woods, and then an encampment along the side of a lake.
This is the campsite of a group of students gathering for what will be a night-time kite tournament, illuminated via lamplight. (One of their number walks around endlessly searching for a missing box of lamps.) The most sinister of the two menacing chefs will make repeated reappearances, trying to lure potential victims into the woods, while a pair of one-armed twins dressed in what appear to be theatrical costumes pop up and then disappear for no apparent reason and not very interesting effect.
The film’s conceptual ambition makes it more interesting to ponder upon later and write about than it is to watch, when time drags on painfully slowly through too much dead dramatic space. Mokri uses the method utilised by Richard Linklater in his debut feature, Slacker, whereby the camera follows one character or group of characters until another enters the frame, at which point it follows them, and so on. There are also traces of Theo Angelopoulos in the shifting between different time frames in the space of a single shot (in this case ‘the’ single shot).
On a technical level, it’s hard to fault Mokri’s staging nor the smooth control exercised by cinematographer Mahmud Kalari, whose credits include Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. There’s no question this epic single shot must have been difficult to achieve (the crew and actors rehearsed for a month), but technical virtuosity should always be the means to the end, not an end in itself.
Christophe Rezai’s evocative score, which often sounds like Michael Nyman’s work for Peter Greenaway, forms an almost incongruously lavish element to a production that otherwise feels very low budget, and Parviz Abnar’s sound design is effective if not always subtle, viz. the sound of knives being sharpened.
The best thing about the film, though, is the ending (spoiler warning), which uses narrative voiceover to set up the expectation of an imminent act of horrific violence before the camera discreetly pans around 180 degrees to show the music score is being played by a quintet of musicians standing by the lake, with the kites in massed flight in the sky above and behind them. It’s such a perfect mixture of the horrific and poetic that it almost repays the infinite patience the viewer has had to expend to reach it. I did say “almost”.