Istanbul: Shanghai Review

An emotionally bruised housewife escapes from her family in a delicate film women can identify with.

Director Ferenc Torok's film holds special appeal to women as an emotionally bruised housewife escapes from her family.

Young Hungarian writer-director Ferenc Torok cashes in on the cultish reputation he established with his politically-tinged trilogy Moscow Square, Eastern Sugar and Overnight to attempt an intimate change-of-pacer so quiet and low-key it wafts across the screen like a dream. The Hungarian-Turkish-Irish-Dutch coprod Istanbul, about a middle-aged woman who opts out of her oppressive family, is a familiar tale told with disarming simplicity, but perhaps too much of a fantasy to be taken seriously. The net result is a respectable, well-crafted art film with special appeal for women, but unlikely to set the boxoffice on fire in any of its coproduction territories. 

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A butcher slicing juicy red steaks for attractive, 50-ish housewife Katalin (prize-winning Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege) foreshadows her bleeding heart when her gray-haired professor husband (Lukats Andor) announces he’s leaving her to shack up with one of his students. His only defense is to say he’s in love.  Her son Zoli (Varga Norbert) disapproves of him leaving Mom for a 20-year-old, though her pregnant and prissy daughter takes Dad’s side. Instead of reacting, Katalin sinks into a mute catatonic state and winds up spending the night in a scary mental hospital.

Coming to the next day, she grabs her passport and credit card and hitches a ride with a truck driver, ending up in Istanbul, of course. While her family frantically searches for her and notifies the police she’s missing, she attempts to find her emotional sanity as a free woman. She strikes up a friendship with Halil (Yavuz Bingol), a nice but married Turkish building engineer who is staying in her hotel, and they are drifting toward a sexual relationship when outside forces intervene.

Depending more on exchanges of looks than on dialogue, the film works best when it is most subtle, and loses energy trying to make a desperate woman’s escape from home seem realistically plausible. There is also a major shift in tone between the various parts: the Hungarian family is closely observed with a faint touch of sardonic humor, while Steege’s Katalin is all aching dramatic nerves, feeling her way around the role with awkward hesitancy as she looks for the key to reconciling her Turkish holiday with reality. Or maybe she’s just trying to live day by day, pushing thoughts of the future aside. Her slender blondeness makes her seem more vulnerable in Halil’s macho world, whose values are so different from her own. Torok sensitively observes their brief, if improbable, encounter and ends the story with a satisfying bit of involuntary revenge, in which the self-centered villain of the piece gets what’s coming to him.

Solid production values all around give the story a well-heeled look, accompanied by Lance Hogan’s very delicate musical score that never steps out of the background.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (competition), June 18, 2012.
Production companies: Uj Budapest Filmstudio, Phanta Vision Film Intl., Ripple World Pictures, Kuzey Film Production
Cast: Johanna Ter Steege, Yavuz Bingol, Lukats Andor, Varga Norbert, Tenki Reka
Director: Ferenc Torok
Screenwriter: Ferenc Torok
Producers: Làszlò Kàntor, F. Serkan Acar, Petra Goedings, Dominic Wright, Jacqueline Kerrin
Director of photography: Dàniel Garas
Production designer: Tamàs Banovich
Costumes: Janos Breckl
Editor: Annelotte Medema
Music: Lance Hogan
Sales Agent: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 99 minutes