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House of My Fathers, which premiered in Busan’s New Currents competition and screened at the Mumbai Film Festival, is the latest in a line of Sri Lankan films to tackle the country’s war-checkered history. What distinguishes Suba Sivakuraman’s feature-length debut from, say, other recent gritty takes on the subject, including Sanjeewa Pushpakumara’s Burning Birds and Jude Ratnam’s documentary Demons in Paradise, is its magical-realist narrative and equally mesmerizing imagery.
Revolving around two rival villages afflicted by a deadly curse and a trio of characters who venture into a mythical forest in hopes of lifting it, the film offers poised storytelling, polished technique and pointed social commentary. The dystopian tale bears traces of features as varied as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men and the legendary and recently deceased Sri Lankan filmmaker Lester James Peries’ Rekava (which, as it happens, is also playing in Busan this year in the Classics section).
Building on these possible creative influences, House of My Fathers is a very sturdy vehicle in its own right. The movie is a rarity, too, since Sivakumaran is one of the very few female filmmakers to have broken into Sri Lanka’s male-dominated film industry. After its Busan bow and its screening at Filmfest Hamburg (where the pic was shortlisted for a prize dedicated to politically engaged cinema), it heads for BFI London Film Festival’s Debate section. Just like her characters, Sivakumaran seems destined to do quite a bit of traveling.
In the film, two neighboring villages are at war, separated quite literally along ethnic lines, with a barbed wire fence and signs proclaiming death for anyone who dares to cross it. The setting is obviously contemporary Sri Lanka, where Sinhalas and Tamils remain at odds with each other despite the 20-year civil war that ended in 2009. Sivakumaran deliberately obscures the realistic, contemporary setting by having her characters converse in mystical parlance. They may dress in plaid shirts and wield guns, but they mark time in terms like “half a moon” and describe places as being “between the sky and the land.”
This is perhaps necessary to clinch the mythical device at the center of the pic. At loggerheads since time immemorial, the Sinhala and Tamil villages suddenly find themselves weighed down by an infertility curse. Their respective shamans receive the same vision from the gods about what they have to do: A Sinhala man and a Tamil woman must journey together into an ominous forest to end the jinx. The shamans predict that only one of them will return. Fearing for their bloodline, the rival village chiefs agree to this joint mission. But given the danger of the trip, the Sinhalas send Asoka (Bimal Jayakodi), a once-respected soldier who has become a pariah after his failed attempt to wrest control of his village. The Tamils contribute Ahalya (Pradeepa), a woman who has become mute due to the trauma of losing her husband and son in the war.
Completing the party is a sage known as “Strange Doctor” (Steve De La Zilwa), who is sent along as a guide and mediator. Just like Tarkovsky’s Zone-bound Russian trio, Sivakumaran’s tropical triumvirate becomes increasingly confused as they venture deeper into the forest, where visions force them to confront their subconscious fears and suppressed guilt. Asoka is plagued by unwanted flashbacks of his ill-fated coup and how he was spared execution while all his fellow mutineers were brutally murdered. These soldiers, mutilated and charred, later appear before him in person, demanding to know why he lived and they died. Ahalya, meanwhile, sees his dead son appearing at every turn in her dreams, even perched on the unwitting Asoka’s shoulders.
Compounding their personal grief are the collective scars of the wars, which loom large. They encounter runaway soldiers and glimpse the ruins of a prison, where inmates have scribbled their hopes of getting a job and taking good care of their parents. Faced with this, the initial tension between Asoka and Ahalya inevitably dissipates. But their move toward intimacy doesn’t necessarily generate a happily-ever-after, as Sivakumaran refrains from offering absolute closure to the story.
Shifting constantly between damp darkness and tropical light, Sivakumaran and her DP Kalinga Deshapriya manage to convey the stuffy and sweaty physical environment, as well as the disorienting mental conditions in the characters’ minds. Art director Bimal Dushmantha adds inventive production design that fuses realism (or a slightly satirical version of it, as in the dueling villages) and fantasy in the forest. Jayakodi and Pradeepa deliver nuanced turns, bringing out the alienation, angst and plain anger pent up within their characters. All considered, House of My Fathers celebrates the birth of a distinctive directorial voice.
Production company: Palmyrah Talkies
Cast: Bimal Jayakodi, Pradeepa, Steve De La Zilwa
Director-screenwriter: Suba Sivakumaran
Producers: Suba Sivakumaran, Dominique Welinski
Director of photography: Kalinga Deshapriya
Art director: Bimal Dushmantha
Editor: Nse Asuquo
Music: Forest Christenson
Venue: Busan International Film Festival (New Currents)
Sales: Asian Shadows
In Sinhala, Tamil and English
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