'White Sun' ('Seto Surya'): Film Review | Venice 2016

A breath of fresh air from the top of the world.

Deepak Rauniyar's Nepalese drama premiered in the Horizons section of the world's oldest film-festival before heading Toronto-ward.

The sky-high Himalayas and the aftermath of civil war cast equally dark shadows in White Sun (Seto Surya), an impressively accomplished second feature by Nepalese writer-director Deepak Rauniyar. Co-produced with Qatar, the Netherlands and the USA — Danny Glover's name present among a slew of producers — this is considerably more than merely a slice of verdant exotica from the very roof of the world.

A standout when premiering in Venice's Horizons sidebar, it's a delicately-observed, multi-generational story which will prove awards-bait at festivals across the world over the coming months (Toronto is next) and could plausibly go a fair distance in the foreign-language film Oscar category (if submitted). While the international art house market isn't exactly receptive to such no-name fare, with suitable handling White Sun could find a warm little niche in the rarefied uplands of the distribution circuit.

Backdrop to all that occurs is the violent conflict between royalists and Maoists which cost 16,000 lives between 1996 and 2006 and resulted in a triumph for the insurgent leftists. Rauniyar and his co-writer David Barker, who also receives solo editing credit, score by so skilfully folding this macro story into the micro details of their narrative. With near-documentary verisimilitude they take us into the village of Nepaltra, where war and exile have removed nearly all adult males apart from scatterings of traditional-minded elders. The plot kicks off with the sudden death of former mayor Chitra (Prakash Ghimire), and over several days follows his cadaver's complicated progress downhill to the riverside setting where, according to local ritual, his corpse must be cremated.

Strict rules regarding who is allowed to touch, carry or even walk past the body reveal the persistence of long-standing gender and class prejudices — just the thing Maoists like Chitra's long-absent son Chandra, also known under his nom-de-guerre Agni (Dayahang Rai), fought to wipe out. But the old ways die extremely hard, as Chandra realizes when he makes the journey from the capital Kathmandu, summoned by his ex-wife Durga (Asha Magrati). Durga is the unsung heroine of the tale, a resourceful woman who takes responsibility and action upon her own shoulders when the menfolk around her prove deficient for various reasons.

Durga's main priority is the education of her young daughter Pooja (Sumi Malla), a goal complicated by uncertainties over the lass's paternity — though Durga makes it clear that neither Chandra nor his brother Suraj (Rabindra Singh Baniya) is the biological father. The long-simmering conflict between Chandra/Agni and Suraj spill over into fisticuffs as they transport their father's body down vertiginous slopes towards the river -- the landscapes calling out for and receiving the beauties of widescreen — resulting in considerable delays and eventually even more violent repercussions. Observing it all is 10-year-old porter Badri (Amrit Pariyar), a war orphan forced to grow up very fast by cruel circumstances he barely comprehends.

Skilfully manipulating romantic and social frictions which in lesser hands might have come across as soapily melodramatic, Rauniyar and Barker construct a parable-like tale whose allegorical aspects are there for those who wish to find them. But their priority is the creation of believable characters in a pungently atmospheric setting, which then takes shape into a satisfyingly organic narrative pattern as White Sun — stark title a reference to an emblem on Nepal's uniquely non-quadrilateral flag — unfurls.

Performances are uniformly impressive across the ensemble, with Rai — a major star in Nepal, and also the lead in Rauniyar's 2012 debut Highway seeming to carry the weight of his world on his shoulders as the battle-scarred Chandra. And although the two kids, who have plenty of screen time between them, are never anything less than appealing, engaging and sympathetic, it's Deepak Chhetri's curmudgeonly priest who emerges as the real scene-stealer, his character never bothering to hide his bone-deep contempt for anything remotely resembling progress.

Production companies: Aadi Production, Louverture Film
Cast: Dayahang Rai, Amrit Pariyar, Asha Magrati, Sumi Malla, Rabindra Singh Baniya, Deepak Chhetri, Deshbakhta Khanal
Director: Deepak Rauniyar
Screenwriters: David Barker, Deepak Rauniyar
Producers: Deepak Rauniyar, Joslyn Barnes, Tsering Rhitar Sherpa, Michel Merkt
Executive producers: Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller, Jaime Mateus-Tique, Mita Hosali, Worley Works
Cinematographer: Mark O'Fearghail
Production designers: Menuka Rai, Akki Thekpa
Costume designers: Swechha Nakarmi, Sushant Shrestha
Editor: David Barker
Composer: Vivek Maddala
Casting: Asha Magrata, Deepak Raunitar
Venue: Venice International Film Festival
Sales: The Match Factory, Cologne, Germany

88 minutes