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Umut Dag’s feature debut is a low-key drama that focuses on the women of a Turkish-Austrian family after the arrival of the patriarch’s second wife.
Vienna has graced the silver screen for decades now providing a wealth of diverse locales. Its devastated post-war visage proved a breeding ground for moral corruption in Carol Reed’s The Third Man, conversely the landmarks give a picture postcard backdrop to the romantic stroll of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. Umut Dag’s debut feature film, Kuma, offers a modern depiction of the Austrian capital that will be somewhat unfamiliar to many cinemagoers. This is Vienna as experienced by the women of an immigrant family from Turkey; beguilingly different whilst remaining quietly recognisable – a sensation echoed by the films riveting narrative.
Amidst riotous wedding celebrations in a Turkish village, we see the differing emotions of several women, in particular that of the young bride, Ayse (Begüm Akkaya). Immediately after the celebrations, she moves to Vienna with the family of her new husband. It swiftly becomes apparent, however, that the young groom, Hasan (Murathan Muslu), is not in fact her new husband. The nuptials were a façade to conceal the somewhat less orthodox arrangement that has been agreed upon; that Ayse will become a second wife (or “kuma”) to Hasan’s father, Mustafa (Verdat Erincin). The family’s current materfamilias, Fatma (Nihal Koldaş), is suffering from cancer and has been the driving force behind the family making unusual preparations for her departure; namely the recruitment of her replacement.
It’s an undoubtedly awkward state of affairs spurred on by Fatma’s traditional values about family and, more importantly, the appropriate role of a wife and mother within it. The clan in question are largely cramped into a single apartment that still houses their youngest four children, with two elder offspring having previously flown the coop. It is the elder children – particularly Nurcan (Dilara Karabayir) – who prove the most obstinate and outspoken with regards to the newest addition to the family; they bristle at her presence whilst continuing to hide the shame of the scenario from the outside community.
In such a constrained environment, it creates a palpable claustrophobia with hardly a scene occurring outdoors and Carsten Thiele’s visuals slowly accentuating the confinement. In a situation that could easily descend into histrionics the screenplay by Petra Ladinigg and the understated performances combine to maintain a compelling but considered drama.
There are instances where story elements seem to be extraneous and needlessly inflammatory – subplots involving spousal abuse and hidden homosexuality appear to be veering towards cliché – but in fact they become vital signifiers of an underlying cultural divide. Fatma’s incredibly traditional values, that have led her to insist on Ayse’s incorporation into the family, slowly become less and less bearable for her children. The admittedly slow burning narrative becomes a battleground between the younger Austrian generation – who would rather forgo headscarves and arranged marriages – and Fatma’s old-fashioned mentality.
Caught in the middle of all of this is Ayse, and for all of the strengths that Kuma has, Akkaya’s terrific performance is the standout. Arriving in Vienna a timid young woman, she soon realises that she will need to inhabit the matriarchal role if she is to be accepted into it and she takes the slights and victories with a beautiful quiet dignity. As Fatma’s condition worsens, her young understudy becomes nursemaid as well as mother and wife, and the scenes between the two women are consistently touching. As her duties change throughout the course of the picture, it is always with Ayse that the viewer’s heart lies. As events take a turn in the final act, the tension ratchets up and the stomach-churning denouement comes entirely down to empathy for the position that Ayse has found herself reluctantly caught in.
It may not be bombastic, but Umut Dag’s debut is an incredibly assured drama that handles the strange premise with the subtlety and deftness of a seasoned filmmaker. His drive to present a story about women – with men playing roles that are ultimately fairly incidental – is as welcome as it is admirable. Dag looks like one to watch, and if you have the chance during its limited UK theatrical release, so too is the excellent Kuma.