'Taksim Hold’em': Film Review | Tokyo 2017

TAKSIM HOLD'EM Still 1 - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
An entertaining game with an edge.

Four Istanbul poker buddies don’t cancel their regular game just because riots have broken out downstairs in Michael Onder’s comedy.

While Turkish film fans wait for the cinema to reflect the earth-shaking political events of the past year, a comedy has apparently slipped by the censors, offering a broad spectrum of opinions from the country’s young middle class. The fact that their dominant sentiment is apathy and self-interest makes Taksim Hold’em no less interesting. Biting political commentary it’s obviously not, and sometimes the conventionally told story has a wishy-washy feel, but director Michael Onder has managed to insert enough government opposition among his cast of characters to launch the film on the festival circuit, following its bow in Tokyo’s Asian Future section.

In his first feature, the British-born, Istanbul-raised Onder makes clever use of the one-room social comedy to portray the reactions of the non-religious urban middle-class — young people who work in media and live together outside marriage. The format is classic, the scripting smooth and fast-paced and the characters easy to identify with.  

Taksim hold’em is apparently a local variant of Texas hold’em, itself a poker spinoff, and it is the favored Saturday night game of four 30-something buddies. This week the game is at Alper’s (Kenan Ece) place, a comfy loft-like apartment just off Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. We see him carefully smoothing a green felt cloth over a table and maniacally arranging the chips. But it isn’t a day like any other; anti-government rallies have mobilized the citizenry, including Alper’s soon-to-be wife Defne (Damla Sonmez), and brutal clashes with the police are going on right outside their upper-floor window. (On TV, police are glimpsed using water hoses and tear gas.)

To cancel or not to cancel the game? That is the question that propels this fast-moving comedy. Big mouth Altan (Emre Yetim) is outraged at the very thought of playing cards at such a tragic time — not that he plans to risk himself by taking part in the rally. In contrast, the high-principled Rafi, who was the only guy at his TV station to follow through and resign, is inclined to play. Kaan (Nezih Cihan Aksoy), married and father of a three-year-old, has his mind elsewhere, on a late-night rendezvous with a woman.

Alper himself is determinedly apolitical, a conformist who calmly complies with the rules of society. All he wants to do is play poker. Rather predictably, this uncool attitude puts him at odds with his girlfriend, the firebrand journalist Defne, who returns from the demonstration with a twisted ankle. Even more predictably, the last act hinges on them making up.  

All the action takes place in the claustrophobic confines of Alper and Defne’s living room, where wounded demonstrators come and go (one might be an undercover cop) and a burly neighbor creates some trouble.

Onder’s script doesn’t specify when the story is set. During the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013? Or perhaps at this year’s May Day protests, when the police used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators? Not surprisingly, no direct mention is made of Erdogan, the army, the attempted coup, or any other sensitive subject, but one can imagine they would approve of the players' consensus that “it’s none of our business what the neighbors do.”

Production company: Bluff Films
Cast: Kenan Ece, Damla Sonmez, Berk Hakman, Nezih Cihan Aksoy, Emre Yetin, Tansu Tasanlar, Suleyman Karaahmet
Director, screenwriter: Michael Onder
Producer: Jozef Ercevik Amado
Executive producers: Hasan Tuvan Yalim, Kaan Yazgan, Alexander Timur Cambol
Director of photography: Ersin Gok
Production designer: Tolga Coskuntuna
Editor: Taner Sarf
Music: Steady Fingers
World sales: Bluff Films
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (Asian Future)
89 minutes