Defiance in the face of constraint brought on by stringent cultural convention is a favourite topic for Sydney Film Festival year in and year out. Falling into that category this year is Turkish award-winner Mustang which, following last year’s release, picked up the coveted Cannes Directors’ Fortnight prize, four Césars and an Oscar nomination, well and truly validating the beautiful work by Director and co-screenwriter Deniz Gamze Ergüven. It’s a story of five young sisters growing up in relative isolation, imprisoned literally and figuratively by an overbearing uncle and grandmother (Ayberk Pekcan and Nihal G. Koldas, respectively) who both ascribe to the common cultural practice of arranged marriage and have a myopic standard of “purity” to which they hold the young girls.
The youngest of the five siblings, Lale (an exceptionally natural Günes Sensoy) narrates a few moments throughout the film, first preceding the opening sequence with a blunt warning should the audience be expecting anything but tragedy: “One moment we were fine, then everything turned to shit.”
Lale, along with her sisters, is seen splashing around on a nearby beach with a group of local boys, harmlessly playing a game on which each girl is propped up on a boys shoulders. It’s innocent fun from one perspective, it’s salacious and shameful from another. The latter point of view is taken up by their stern grandmother who is made aware of the game by a nosy neighbour, punishing each girl one by one while the others scream and try to knock the door down. This subtly powerful scene speaks to the much larger dynamic throughout the film, the girls function as one unit when they are together, protective and defiant – particularly Lale – in the face of a singular oppression which turns their home into a prison – barred windows come into the picture soon enough – and an aptly described “wife factory”.
Parallels are almost instantly drawn to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, although with an entirely different tone, rightfully committed to the female perspective and more so about the response to oppression rather than the oppression itself. Soon enough the film dives into different responses to this situation by further distinguishing the girls, even if their individual personalities aren’t fully drawn, with the exception of Lale. The results range from submission to tragedy, with tradition – embodied in the uncle and grandmother – remaining a strict constant throughout.
When the girls function as a group – before they are increasingly separated – the film is alive with a youthful energy, each young actress fitting into the role naturally, making frames feel full of vibrancy and the kind of hope that thrives despite being smothered by tradition. As the most naively fierce of the five, the camera is most intimate with Lale and the anger and urge for freedom that she feels is communicated effectively, powerful as the sisters from which she derives her strength are married off – or worse – in hauntingly casual and unnervingly robotic meet-and-greet ceremonies – fixtures which are dismantled with cynicism and wry humour.
Lale’s narration feels unnecessary when it does occur, brought it to over-explain obvious developments before the device is dropped all together, awkwardly ruining some consistency in the film. Another misstep is the characterisation of the uncle, shaping him all the way towards an actual child molester, an angle which feels overly forced. However, for the most part Gamze Ergüven and her cast are near flawless, conveying the sadness, urgency, and tension that fuels Mustang and places it as one of the most beautifully tragic films of recent years.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Run Time: 94 mins
Mustang screened as part of the 63rd annual Sydney Film Festival. There are no more screenings throughout the festival but there is one planned for Sunday 26th June as part of the Traveling Film Festival in Newcastle. you can find more information HERE
Mustang will receive a wider release in Australia on 23rd June through Madman. We’re giving away some double passes to see the film HERE