'Big Big World' ('Koca dunya'): Film Review | Venice 2016

Koca Dunya - Still 2 - H - 2016
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
Intoxicating at first but loses its spell.

Turkish filmmaker Reha Erdem's latest is a thick Freudian soup of sibling love and parental denial, set mainly in the isolation of swampy woodland.

Saturated in rich color and laced with beguiling images of nature as a source of beauty, mystery and menace, Big Big World evokes classic fairy tales with its story of an orphaned brother and sister who escape the clutches of a predatory ogre and flee into the forest. Turkish writer-director Reha Erdem sets up his modern take on that archetypal plotline with brisk storytelling skill and impressive visual flair in an attention-grabbing 12-minute pre-titles sequence. If the muddy narrative thereafter proceeds by fits and starts rather than with consistent momentum, the great-looking movie's mix of uneasy reality and magic should ensure further festival bookings. Premiering in Venice, it won the Horizon section's Special Jury Prize.

Motorcycle mechanic Ali (Berke Karaer) refuses to accept his separation from Zuhal (Ecem Uzun), the beloved younger sister with whom he grew up in an orphanage. With dogged persistence, he keeps beating on the door of the family that has taken her in, but they deny him access and shove him aside, even telling him that the orphanage lied about their origins and that Zuhal is not his biological sibling. When the distressed mother of the adoptive family tells Ali that her sleazy husband plans to make the teenage Zuhal his second wife, he returns with a knife and forces his way in.

Violent crime is treated as a necessary impulse in this world of corrupted adults, giving Ali's actions the kind of heroism again found in fairy tales. He puts the traumatized Zuhal on his motorbike and they leave the city behind, hiding out first in the shell of a derelict building and then traveling via dirt roads and rural sprawl into thick woodland. Zuhal is evasive when Ali asks if she was molested by the man who plucked her from the orphanage.

The woods that become their home are alive with nature. Cinematographer Florent Henry's camera throughout captures gorgeous crystalline images of snakes, spiders, dragonflies, frogs and turtles. Sounds of water, wind and eerie birdcalls permeate the soundtrack, along with the tinkling motif that gives way to brooding strings in composer Nils Frahm's pensive score.

The brother and sister find a convenient metal frame around which to build a shelter, along with an old boat to take them to their isolated retreat. Ali begins traveling in and out of a nearby town every day, earning money as a mechanic to finance their next move. But their idyll starts falling apart when his distraction with a fairground hooker (Melisa Akman) causes a setback in their plans. Meanwhile, Zuhal's nausea would appear to answer Ali's earlier question, and her long stretches of solitude leave her increasingly unhinged.

The actors are strong, particularly Karaer with his wiry physique and haunted eyes. But Erdem's story sense abandons him, which is disappointing after such a promising start. Instead of continuing to evolve, the narrative stalls, falling into repetitive patterns as the director weaves in opaque symbols and poetic metaphors that remain as dense and soggy as the reedy shallows through which Ali and Zuhal wade each day. In terms of theme, mood and visual style, there are similarities to Erdem's previous films, notably Times and Winds from 2006. But while the director's refined eye for composition remains striking, he shows too little concern here for audience involvement.

The theme of parental love and the cost of its absence is clear enough, though Erdem's tirelessly enigmatic way of exploring it — in strange encounters with a goat and a bullock, or in the fate of a senile old woman wandering the forest looking for her father — makes trying to decipher his meaning a chore. Some momentum — if not a lot of clarity — is regained in the final stretch, which builds to an ending that's more intriguing in its ambiguities even if it remains emotionally unsatisfying.

Production companies: Maya Film, Imaj TV, Atlantik Film
Cast: Ecem Uzun, Berke Karaer, Melisa Akman, Murat Deniz, Ayta Sozeri, Hakan Cimenser
Director-screenwriter: Reha Erdem
Producer: Omer Atay
Director of photography: Florent Henry
Production designer: Omer Atay
Costume designer: Demet Tufan
Editor: Reha Erdem
Music: Nils Frahm
Casting director: Fazli Korkmaz
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Sales: Picture Tree International

101 minutes.