CIFF Diary: Day 11 - Gaze, Breath, Melt...Catharsis?

10/17 - The aesthetically puzzling new feature from Sri Lanka, Karma, was one of the films being featured as part of the South Asian focus that is unique to this year's fest.  The film is the second feature from director/writer Prasanna Jayakody, and tells the story of a young man named Piyal (Jageth Manuwarna).  Piyal is introduced in the opening image of the film; floating and gently rotating to the pronounced sound of breathing.  It is a striking opening image, followed by a voice-over where we hear Piyal saying:  "I was responsible for my mother's death."  The film toys with theatrical sets and imagery (Jayakody has a live theatre background) as we see what appears to be a staged depiction of his dying mother lying in bed next to Piyal.  Then, a rowboat suspended by ropes that swings left to right, as the rowers ominously question our central character in the middle about the meaning of life.  We later learn that this rowboat image is part of a play that Piyal is rehearsing, and that the aural and visual scheme of Jayakody's new film is going to omit clear narrative road signs in favor of more symbolic preoccupations.  As you may have already guessed, the symbolism becomes, at times, a bit heavy handed.  At the same time, for a film that veers so boldly into avant-garde territory, there is a clear narrative through-line at the heart of Karma, though it is handled in a way that has nothing to do with Western film language, which I've found increasingly refreshing in reflection, though maybe not entirely engaging for the entirety of Karma's brief running time.

Michelle Herft in Karrma
Piyal occupies a dingy space below the living space of Nadee (Nadeeka Guruge) and Amanda (Michelle Herft), a musician and his girlfriend who are trying to cope with the onset of Amanda's breast cancer.  As a way to deal with her illness, Amanda posts images on her blog of her naked breasts, asking the question, "What does this mean to you?"  The trajectory of the narrative involving Piyal's eventual intimacy with Amanda, and Nadee's increasing distance from her, as images of Nadee performing with his band are layered over the sounds of Amanda's anguish, is detailed through shots that frequently use mismatched sound components.  This technique seems to be the stylistic feature of the film, as it carries us through four segments: "Gaze," "Breath," "Melt," and "Catharsis."  In the same way that the film refuses to link it's sound elements to it's images, I had trouble linking the titles to the action and imagery in significant ways, and certainly never reached a point of catharsis, even though the final passage of the film features a memorable image of Amanda, post-mastectomy, as Piyal, now her lover, lays his head on her lap.

Jageth Manuwarna and Michelle Herft in Karma
I appreciate that Karma made some bold stylistic choices, but by the finale the constant moaning, sobbing, breathing, and squeaking noises were pronounced to the point of annoyance.  I can't imagine this cumulative effect was in line with the film maker's intent given the subject matter.  Ultimately, he does manage to create some potent images, and occasionally, as with Amanda's blog, raises some interesting questions.  In the end we are left with the mild impression one gets from time spent with an interesting abstract painting, rather than the full impact of an accomplished film, as we return to one of the more engaging images, the film coming full circle visually:  Piyal, spinning slowly in water as the sound of breathing continues.    

Up Next:  The new film by Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss



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