'Kalo Pothi, the Black Hen': Filmart/Hong Kong Review
Nepalese filmmaker Min Bahadur Bham’s first feature revolves around two boys’ mission to relocate their missing hen as civil war rages around them.
Set at a time when his home country was ravaged by a deadly Maoist insurgency, young Nepalese filmmaker Min Bahadur Bham’s feature-film debut offers poised storytelling, heartrending performances and cinematic imagery galore. Revolving around two rural boys’ search for a chicken on which their futures hinge, Kalo Pothi, the Black Hen has had a surprisingly low-profile presence ever since its bow at Venice Critics’ Week sidebar last year, with only a few festival appearances (Busan, Tokyo FilmEx, Warsaw and Singapore) to its name.
But this Nepalese-German-Swiss-French co-production deserves more recognition for its deft combination of art and social commentary, and hopes that an appearance at Filmart will help reignite interest from more festival programmers.
The film unfolds in 2001 at a time in Nepal when a protracted civil war between the army and left-wing rebels seems to be winding down, with both parties reaching out for peace talks. But the tension remains high, as both sides continue to play brinksmanship in the rural hinterlands: menacing soldiers in full military attire still patrol the heavily militarized countryside, while guerillas stage sermons and shows in villages in an attempt to rally support from the impoverished and mostly illiterate rural population.
All this saber rattling and ideological warfare seems to play out as background noise, however, as the film’s two young protagonists begin the film confronting more practical issues in life. Hailing from different castes — one is the village headman’s grandson, the other the son of a servant — Kiran (Sukra Raj Rokaya) and Prakash (Khadka Raj Nepali) are united by their friendship and a common desire to keep a hen whose eggs would bring in the money the latter needs to get out of the cycle of poverty to which his lowly family has been condemned.
When Prakash’s father sells the fowl to an old man in the next village, however, the boys are plunged into a tortuous struggle to stump up some cash to buy it back. Just as the pair runs into endless obstacles in their task, circumstances around them also spiral downward: Prakash’s angst-ridden sister Bijuli (Hansha Khadka) joins the guerillas, the marriage of Kiran’s schoolteacher sibling Uzhyale (Benisha Hamal) goes awry, and the army and the insurgents resume hostilities. However, much they try to focus on their hen-tracking mission, the boys soon find themselves sucked into the social maelstrom around them.
Bolstered by stirring performances from his cast, Bham and his crew — especially his Kazakh DP Aziz Zhambakiyev, a Berlinale award-winner for his work on Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons — have produced an evocative piece about harsh lives unraveling in a war-torn, rustic land. Mixing moments of humor and tragedy, along with realism and the ethereal — the latter embodied in fantastic dream sequences illustrating Prakash’s suppressed feelings of grief and loss — Black Hen is an effective showcase of a promising filmmaker in flight.
Production companies: Tandem Production, Mila Productions Pvt Lrd, Shooney Films Pvt Lrd, CDP
Cast: Khadka Raj Nepali, Sukra Raj Rokaya, Jit Bahadur Malla, Hansha Khadka
Director: Min Bahadur Bham
Screenwriters: Min Bahadur Bham, Abinash Bikram Shah
Producers: Anna Katchko, Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, Debaki Rai, Min Bahadur Bham, Anup Thapa, Catherine Dussart
Director of photography: Aziz Zhambakiyev
Production designer: Menuka Rai
Costume designer: Nanda Keshar Bham, Tara Khatri
Editor: Nimesha Shrestha, Aziz Zhambakiyev
Music: Jason Kunwor
International Sales: Wide Management
No ratings; 90 minutes