'Ayla: The Daughter of War': Film Review

Ayla: The Daughter of War - Screen Shot-H 2017
Courtesy of Dijital Sanatlar Production
A true story translates into sentimental fiction.

A Korean orphan and a Turkish soldier bond for life in Can Ulkay’s war drama.

The touching real-life tale of a Turkish sergeant who saves a small Korean girl becomes long, heart-tugging fiction in Ayla: The Daughter of War, directed by Can Ulkay. The story is well-known both in South Korea and in Turkey, and was told in the 2010 South Korean doc Kore Ayla, which inspired the present film. A documentary feeling still persists in Yigit Guralp’s screenplay, which struggles to stay focused while faithfully recounting a passel of real-life incidents.

Ismail Hacioglu headlines a professional Turkish cast as the patriotic, level-headed but warm-hearted young officer, with little Kim Seol (who made her bow as a toddler on South Korean TV) in the role of the adorable Ayla and a cameo by a distinguished Eric Roberts as Lt. Gen. John Breitling Coulter, the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Korea. Turkey proposed the film for the foreign-language Oscar, a calculated choice but one that didn't make the shortlist amid many other films about children and war. Its next stop is the Palm Springs film festival, where it is likely to be a crowd-pleaser.

Suleyman Dilbirligi (Hacioglu) is introduced as a small-town dandy in 1950. He plans to marry a pretty girl and settle down to a normal life, but first he signs up for some adventure time in the Korean war, where Turkey is part of a last-minute UN task force. He and his joking buddy Ali (Ali Atay) reach the front totally unprepared for combat.

Though the war is in its final stages, his infantry division is immediately attacked by North Korean troops and warplanes in the first of several edgy, well-staged battle scenes. Showing their valor and prowess, the Turks win the skirmish, but when they search the woods for the enemy, Suleyman stumbles onto a scene of carnage. An entire village has been massacred, and only a little girl clutching the hand of her dead mother is miraculously alive.

Saving her from another ambush, he takes her back to headquarters, where she becomes the darling mascot of the Turkish troops. She’s too shocked to talk or tell them her name, so they call her Ayla (“halo”) for her cute round face. She eventually calls Suleyman “Papa” and he comes to look on her as his daughter, despite warnings that he will have to leave her behind one day. Many humorous, dramatic, and heart-warming scenes later, this is exactly what happens. The Turkish troops withdraw and Suleyman is obsessed with finding a way to bring Ayla home with him.

The film then jumps ahead to long codas set in 1999 and 2010. Suleyman is an elderly man with a wife and grown children when he is approached by a documentary film team to relive his story. If the Korean war scenes felt stretched at times, doubling back over the reactions of family and friends at home, they were carried forward emotionally by Ayla and Suleyman’s single-minded affection for each other. These final scenes, which even introduce new characters, would have been better summarized in written titles, instead of ending this unusual story on a conventional note meant to wring out a few more tears.

The straightforward storytelling is matched by a retro '50s look, not just in Firat Yunluel’s production design but in the camerawork, staging and obtrusive use of music that seem inspired by old Hollywood films.

Production company: Dijital Sanatlar Production
Cast: Ismail Hacioglu, Cetin Tekindor, Kim Seol, Ali Atay, Murat Yildirim, Taner Birsel, Eric Roberts, Lee Kyung Jin, Meral Cetinkaya, Danla Sonmez, Busra Develi, Sinem Uslu
Director: Can Ulkay
Screenwriter: Yigit Guralp
Producer: Mustafa Uslu
Coproducer: Caglar Ercan
Director of photography: Jean-Paul Seresin
Production designer: Firat Yunluel
Costume designer: Bran Ugurlu
Editor: Mustafa Presheya
Music: Fahir Atakoglu
Casting directors: Burcu Binbasaran, Ruzgar Cast Ezgi Adaoye
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival

124 minutes