Soongava: Dance of the Orchids: Film Review

Subarna Thapa's French-Nepalese co-production offers a low-key directorial debut thriving on its lead actresses' engaging turns as tragic young lovers torn apart by social intolerance towards same-sex relationships.

Nepal's submission for the best foreign language Oscar revolves around two young metropolitan women’s tribulations as their romance is crushed by disapproving family, friends and employers.

Boasting one of the world's most vibrant LBGT activists and – at least on paper – a comprehensive policy in recognizing and protecting third-gender rights, Nepal is more than well-placed to produce fiery films revolving around non-heterosexual relationships. It can be said, then, that it's not that astounding that a same-sex romance drama like Soongava: Dance of the Orchids was made.

What is astounding is how the story is told. Set amidst the affluent middle-class in the country's capital, Kathmandu – a world of blue jeans, bustling nightclubs and bilingual conversations about Venetian chandeliers – Subarna Thapa's directorial debut is peppered with many an arthouse mannerism, from the premium of non-incidental music, the presence of dialogue-free traveling shots (mostly of characters riding on motorcycles, from one plot point to another) and even a flash of the Rohmer-esque shot-countershot in a conversation scene.

This non-mainstream aesthetic is perhaps down to Thapa's own artistic predilections -- the Nepali director, whose next film will be set in France, is now a naturalized French citizen -- and also his nearly entirely Gallic technical crew. Its failure to captivate Nepalese audiences will likely make commercial traction in international markets as unlikely as its chances of moving to the final shortlist for the foreign language Oscar next year. But the film's engaging story and its stars' nuanced turns should continue Soongava's fine run at international LGBT-themed or new-talent festivals. (The film recently screened at Hong Kong and will show at the International Film Festival of Young Film Directors in St. Jean de la Luz in France – two stops on a tour that included Montreal and Hamburg.)

Mirroring the lesbian-drama du jour that is Abdellatif Kechiche's Blue Is the Warmest Color, Thapa's film – which is much more implicit in its depiction of sexual desire – explores the fallout of a relationship between two young women with distinct differences in their background. While that one catastrophic specter wreaks havoc in the Palme d'Or-winning film, Thapa's protagonists are torn apart by how they try to deal with oppressive, conservative social norms which remain sturdy in even the most Westernized households -- specifically that of the tomboyish Kiran (Nisha Adhikari), whose bourgeois family speaks as much English as Nepali in their daily life. Their modern-décor mansion is filled with modern gadgets such as treadmills and with seemingly tolerant individuals such as his loving brother Milan (Saugat Milla).

Meanwhile, Kiran's dancer girlfriend Diya (Deeya Maskey) hails from a house of traditions: From the lush artifice of wood and brick sprouts a clan seen taking part in long-running social and religious rituals, from festive gatherings to the events staged to mark the young woman's engagement with a rich fiancé. Complications inevitably unfold as the two women persist in making their relationship work, efforts made even more difficult as Diya somehow sleeps with her husband-to-be (on their first date) and becomes pregnant.

And as the two protagonists finally decide to strike out on their own, their surroundings – which had appeared to be glowing in benignity – close in quickly, as one social institution after the other rush in to switch the lights off in their lives. In what could be a damning critique on how it might have all been a progressive façade all along, a point perhaps echoing reports of how lower-level Nepalese bureaucrats are undermining the government's recognition of gay rights through gregarious imposition of red tape, the urban-oriented story eventually spirals into a tragic finale driven by a horrendous act harking back to the worst excesses of traditional chauvinism.

It's true that Soongava is not exactly an epic tragedy in terms of story and look. It's a question whether Thapa has wanted that anyway, and his offering of a very humanist tale -- melodrama mixed with a smattering of off-kilter mise-en-scene and even gritty realism – at least rings true. And in a story which heralds doom -- with the purveyors of reactionary power left unseen, such as Diya's fiancé or Kiran's absent (but much-feared) father – a flicker of hope remains towards the end, akin to a symbol celebrating the couple's resilience and steeled will for an independent life. It's a subtle gesture which could serve to define this understated but engaging feature.
Venue: Hong Kong Lesbian and Gay Film Festival
Production Companies: Rapsodie Productions, Ami Films, Cite Films
Director: Subarna Thapa
Cast: Deeya Maskey, Nisha Adhikari, Saugat Malla, Bashundara Bhushal
Producers: Virgine Lacombe, Raphael Berdugo, Subarna Thapa
Screenwriter: Subarna Thapa
Cinematographer: Sara Cornu
Music: Sylvain Morizet
Editor: Sylvie Gadmer
International Sales: Cite Films
In Nepali and English
No rating, 85 minutes

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