'Dark in the White Light' ('Sulanga gini aran'): Vladivostok Review

Courtesy of Locarno Film Festival
Dim and disturbing drama of suppressed desire.

Sri Lankan auteur Vimukthi Jayasundara's latest festival-bound title charts the spiritual struggle of a surgeon who turns into a serial rapist at night.

While described in publicity materials as a spiritual "story of fraying bodies at the threshold of death," Dark in the White is essentially Jekyll and Hyde wrought large, carnal and deadly in Sri Lanka. Designed as a multi-strand story, Vimukthi Jayasundara's latest film revolves mostly around a hushed hulk of a surgeon who, once out of his white coat, goes on a sexual rampage, sometimes even raping the same patients he's been treating while on duty.

Jayasundara's previous three features — the Cannes titles The Forsaken Land and Mushroom, and the Venice competition entry Between Two Worlds — were stunningly lensed but mostly plot-free evocations of the alienation and trauma of the protracted civil war in Sri Lanka. For the first time in the director's career, however, politics doesn't get a look-in here. By detaching Dark in the White Light from more engaging social concerns, Jayasundara struggles to inject gravity into his trademark abstract imagery. After its premiere in competition in Locarno, this Sri Lankan-French co-production is probably destined for niche berths on the festival circuit, starting with a bow in Vladivostok.

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The film begins with the induction of a novice monk. Over an off-screen monolgoue in which he muses about his past fascinations with death and his aborted attempt to broach mortality through medical studies, a young man (Ruvin de Silva) has his head shaved and then learns from an elder about how human existence is controlled by a "Lord of Death". The film then cuts to an office in the city, where another seemingly philosophical sermon unfolds: a middle-aged man presides over a small group and preaches the wonders of the body and how donating organs is akin to almsgiving. Sinister and sweating profusely, the man is hardly a spiritualist, his speech actually a preamble for his organ trafficking business.

Despite being played by Jayasundara's long-time associate and veteran thesp Mahendra Perera (The Forsaken Land, 28), the racketeer is just a fretting foot soldier present to provide some comic relief. The major character in the film lies above him in the food chain, in the shape of the doctor (Steve De La Zilwa) whose first gesture on screen is to sniff the blood covering his surgical gloves after a gory operation. While he saves lives on duty, he also destroys lives during his off hours, assaulting comatose young women in his car and then, harrowingly, in the hospital.

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It's during this last crime that the doctor breaks down, revealing him to be more like a vampire who could no longer control or suppress his dark desires. Given Jayasundara's style, one never really expects the film to provide answers to questions of physicality, desire and mortality. The problem here lies in the use of decontextualized, aestheticized sexual violence, which only highlights the vacuity of the film itself. While d.p. Channa Deshapriya and production designer Hal Harindranath have produced a technically proficient piece to rival the director's previous films, the new work lacks the spiritual resonance or depth of past outings. This is Jayasundara's shortest feature, but also his least profound.

Venue: Pacific Meridian International Film Festival, Vladivostok (Competition)
Production company: Film Council Productions
Cast: Steve De La Zilwa, Ruvin de Silva, Suranga Ranawaka, Mahendra Perera
Director-screenwriter-producer: Vimukthi Jayasundara
Director of photography: Channa Deshapriya
Production and costume designer: Lal Harindranath
Editor: Saman Alvitigala
Music: Lakshman Joseph de Saram
International Sales: Film Council Productions

In Sinhalese

Not rated; 82 minutes


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