The Seattle International Film Festival, where I am this week serving as a juror for the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI), seems to specialize in offbeat films, like undiscovered American Indies or the latest from Third World and other non-mainstream cinemas. That certainly is the impression I've gotten so far after watching "Flying Fish," the debut film from Sri Lankan filmmaker Sanjeewa Pushpakumara.
Pushpakumara introduced the film, and I thought he was sending a mixed message. On the one hand, he was a very funny guy, brimming with ebullience and full of unexpected twists in his conversation. On the other hand, don't expect him to be getting a job real soon promoting movies in a Hollywood studio. "I had a dream last night," he said, laughing, "that I came to this screening and everybody walked out!" He added, "This film gives you no pleasure or joy, but I hope it gives you something. But I don't know what that would be. I don't ask you to enjoy the film. It is not a film to enjoy." But he said this in such enjoyable, upbeat way, that no one walked out.
Or maybe not until the fourth or fifth of the lingering, apparently metaphorical close-ups of insects, or, and YH and I especially had a problem this, after a long sequence in which a stunned, seemingly moribund bunny, staggering around like it had been kayoed by Mike Tyson.
Other than that and a few other debut film indulgences and the fact that at 125 minutes the film is about a half hour too long, "Flying Fish" is kind of brilliant. Though the fish in the film don't fly but are for the most part dead and squashed and covered with flies.
Much of the dark mood of the picture - in contrast to the luminous, if somewhat squalid visuals of rural Sri Lanka, can be attributed to the fact that it is set in a country that has suffered a devastating civil war that has lasted several decades, an internecine struggle between two ethnic groups, the ruling Sinhalese and the minority Tamil (their insurgent army is called the "Tamil Tigers"), with roots going back, as a rebel leader's history lesson explains, to at least the third century B.C.E. And though the actual conflict is never seen, it permeates everything like a poison.
In a small village on the outskirts of the warfare (Pushpakumara's actual hometown as it turns out), three sad and sordid stories unfold. In one a young girl falls for a Sri Lankan soldier and gets pregnant, freaking her father out. In another a recent widow and mother of 8 children decides to make up for lost time, or maybe she's just trying to make ends meet, and starts sleeping with every horn dog in town. And in the third a well-to- Tamil man ponders the wisdom of shipping his family, or at least his grade=school daughter, to Canada to escape the mounting violence - especially after Tamil guerrillas pay a visit, demand 200,000 rupees, and to prove they mean business, shoot his dog.
As noted above, the story unfolds in long takes, with images of striking, painterly beauty and a subtle use of sound and of the space outside the frame. In the Q & A after the screening he listed some of his favorite filmmakers (Antonioni, Tarkovsky, Bergman, and many others) and talked about the production conditions (13 days of shooting with a budget of around $25,000). One audience member, concerned as we were about the bunny, not to mention two dogs executed in the course of the movie, wanted to know if indeed no animals were harmed during the making of the film, even though there was a notice in the end credits to that effect. "I actually did kill the ant," he says about a scene in which the insect is burned with a cigarette, one of the pre-shadowings of more intense violence to come. "I couldn't figure out how to fake it. But this seemed forgivable when there's a war going on in which human beings are being killed."