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Friday, May 5, 2006

Full steam ahead to the dark stuff

Head On

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Fatih Akin
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: German, Turkish, English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Head On" is a film with a perfectly blunt title. Not even 10 minutes into the film, when we've barely even met its protagonist, Cahit, an alcoholic 40-year-old in a dead-end job collecting bottles at a Hamburg rock club, we see him drive his car full speed, head-on, into a wall.

News photo
Birol Unel (left) and Sibel Kekilli in "Head On"

It's an act of desperation. With hurt in his past, and no future in sight, Cahit tries to end it all . . . and fails. He winds up in the hospital where he's patched up and sent to a clinic for counseling. There he meets Sibel, a 20-year-old who immediately latches onto Cahit, asking him to marry her.

A sham marriage would be fine, anything to get her away from her conservative Turkish Islamic family -- her brother broke her nose for holding hands with a boy. Cahit -- also a German-born Turk -- would be acceptable to them as a husband. Cahit just want to be left alone, but when Sibel offers to sneak out and get him a drink, he agrees to talk.

With dialogue like, "Got a beer, baby?" and "Only if you marry me," it's here that we start to realize that "Head On (Ai Yori Tsuyoku)" is a bit of a black comedy. That is, until Cahit refuses Sibel's offer, and she immediately tries to kill herself again. Cahit rushes her to the hospital, and against his instincts, agrees to marry her, but the marriage would only be on paper. At least, that's the plan.

After a hasty wedding, Sibel moves into Cahit's trashed flat. Between rows, the pair form a good rapport. They're both wild: Cahit is constantly drinking, and involved in a relationship with Marin (Catrin Striebeck), a rock-chick hairdresser, that's purely physical. Sibel indulges in her newly found freedom by getting tattooed, piercing her navel, snorting coke and sleeping around with guys she meets in clubs. And yet each recognizes something in the other's self-destructive urges.

Before he knows it, Cahit has fallen for Sibel, hopelessly so, but she rejects his advances, saying if she slept with him, then she'd really be his wife, thus losing her independence. Cahit is beside himself: At the club he works at, he smashes his fists into a row of glasses on the bar, bellowing with rage "I'm in love!" as blood flows down his hands. Yes, love has struck -- head-on.

Those of you know this feeling -- of wanting and needing someone despite yourself, of both anger and awe as you find your emotional stability bound to the whims of another -- will immediately embrace this film. As far as dark, obsessive, passionate love stories go, "Head On" ranks near the top. If you get anything out of "Betty Blue," "Happy Together" or "In the Realm of the Senses," then "Head On" provides a similar rush.

Director Fatih Akin, a second-generation son of Turkish immigrants, also wrote the script, and the film bears all the marks of personal experience. While Akin has expressed in interviews no intention to be representative of the Turkish minority in Germany, he does show an affinity with outsiders. Both Sibel and Cahit find themselves as outsiders not simply because they're Turks in Germany, but beyond that, through their rejection of the conservatism of their community's Islamic culture.

In one great scene, Cahit and Sibel ride in an empty bus, arguing loudly -- and crudely -- about their upcoming marriage, both covered in blood from Sibel's latest suicide attempt. "I'm a bum!" Cahit insists, but Sibel screams that her parents will accept him because he's Turkish. At this point, the bus halts, and the driver, also Turkish, roars at the couple that his bus has "no room for bastards like you who have no respect for their God and religion!" Cahit, in a perfect display of his f***-off attitude, reminds the driver -- in German -- that it's not "his" bus, but rather, the city's. There's the problem in a nutshell: The freedoms of a modern, secular society are all around them, but the constraints of religion and tradition are constantly closing in.

And yet, Akin frames everything in the context of Turkish traditional music; he uses a full band of musicians on oud, violin, and darbukka on the shore of the Golden Horn, the spires of an Istanbul mosque rising behind them. Inspired by Brecht, Akin uses shots of the band to break the story into chapters, while also using the song's lyrics to comment on Sibel and Cahit's doomed romance: "I cannot call you my love, for you are my dark passion." This feeling seeps over into the rest of the soundtrack as well, which features some nice dark touches from The Birthday Party and Depeche Mode.

Akin has noted that "one of the basic ideas for the mood of the film was the idea that Western punk music is really connected -- in the lyrics for example -- to classical Turkish music. Both are about how you can love somebody so much you go insane. You feel so much passion that you want to hurt yourself."

In a sense, "Head On" is "Sid & Nancy" with an infinitely more likable couple at its center. Cahit, thanks to the low-down charisma of actor Birol Unel, exudes a Bukowski-like sexiness in his dissipation, armored with a cool, sharp sense of black humor. As Sibel, previously unknown actress Sibel Kekilli proves to be a perfect foil; her sweet smiles conceal her character's explosive temper, as well as her sexual appetite. But however much cocaine she snorts, however many men she picks up, she never shows anything less than sheer euphoria at a chance to, at last, take a walk on the wild side. It's no surprise that Cahit falls for her; the viewer will too.

Sibel realizes her love for Cahit too late, after tragedy has separated them. She returns to Istanbul, telling him to come to her when he can. The film gets as dark as night and finally, when all hope is lost, gives us -- and the lovers -- a break. The haunting ending will stay with you for a long, long time.

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