On Nonverbal Cinema: Obscure (2019) and The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova)

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a series on the 2019 Taipei Film Festival.

Cinema began as a record of physical movement. The advent of sound brought it more in line with the naturalism of everyday life, but it also de-emphasized the camera’s possibility for intimacy. The last half-decade or so has seen a reversal on that front, with renewed arthouse attention to microgestures and minute shifts in affect. I’m thinking of films like Her (2013), Gone Girl (2014), 45 Years (2015), Moonlight (2016), A Ghost Story (2017), and Phantom Thread (2018), among others. (A Ghost Story would fit perfectly in this piece, too.)

The latest film to join the trend is writer-director Kunlin Wang’s debut film Obscure (2019), which has only one line of dialogue in 92 minutes, and it’s in a reinvented version of “an obscure European language,” to boot, Wang told us in the subsequent Q&A. Everything else is conveyed through framing, blocking, facial expressions, situations, and score. Wang said that the script was originally written with dialogue, but when revising she cut all the lines she felt were unnecessary and ended up with just one.

They’re unnecessary because the plot, taking place over seven days, is so archetypal. A father (Chris Cleveland), son (Kylr Coffman), and—it turns out—daughter (Lorell Bird Dorfman) get by on subsistence farming somewhere in what looks like the steppes. Told from the son’s point of view, the film starts with brother and sister taking a break to share a bowl of their cow’s milk; the father’s evil eye from the background of the shot codes the act as one of rebellious intimacy. The father is cold and authoritarian, and maybe starting to grow ill (this is one of the few films in which a cough is just a cough), so we think that he just doesn’t want them to slack off. But one day, as the film’s synopsis notes, he finds his father in the shack on the edge of their property, raping his sister. Hello, Oedipus. She sees him watching though their father doesn’t, and you can imagine how this changes the family’s emotional dynamics. Though I don’t believe in spoilers, the final plot twist is too, ahem, delicious to give away.

There’s also a subplot involving the cow that loads it (the cow) with multiple plot functions and symbolism. More symbolism can be found in some chickens. The buyer of the milk and the patrons and proprietor of a melancholy, desultory bar round out the cast.

After finishing the film, Wang later cut it down to 60 minutes to submit it as her MFA graduation film; its student film production value is hidden quite well, but sometimes peeks through, such as in the supper scenes, when the flickering kerosene lamp in the center of the table is echoed by atmospheric underlighting. Wang said it was serendipitous, as their light that day just wouldn’t stabilize—making the moment in a crucial scene when the lights flare up with the father’s temper that much more powerful. On the whole, though, the emotions at the core of the film are heightened by the slow pacing, dominant use of long takes (by cinematographer Haley Saunders and editor June Yuting Jin), elongated but not “soaring” score (by Enguang Zhao), and intense and soulful acting by the three leads. Sound designer Chen Xu also deserves a shout-out for excellent foley work.

I’m still impressed by the fact that not only is there only one line of dialogue, that line is there because it’s the only point in the film where pure exposition is required. Every other plot point is bound up in symbolism or emotion or character work, or all three.

Writer-director Sergei Parajanov’s classic The Color of Pomegranates (Nřan guynə / Նռան գույնը 1969/2014, aka Sayat-Nova) is nonverbal in a completely different sense. The film has a long and storied production and release history involving censorship and jail, which I won’t get into here. What arrests me is the style with which it relates the spirit of the 18th-century Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova (which means King of Songs). Words are spoken, sung, or thrown up on the screen, but where words are used, they aren’t for exposition. In fact, I don’t think the film uses exposition at all.

Though very loosely based on Sayat-Nova’s life, the plot is allegorical and, again, archetypal, divided into several stages of life, from youth and marriage to pursuit of faith and return to family life. And a long death sequence. The film is presented in a series of tableaux in the style of Armenian iconography. Suren Shakhbazyan’s camera, capturing a wide spectrum of colors as befits the film’s ultimate title, has a single perspective—from the front—and repeats some shots and their sounds for spiritual emphasis. (It was edited by Parajanov with M. Ponomarenko.) Sayat-Nova (Melkon Alekyan as a kid, Sofiko Chiaureli as a young man, Vilen Galstyan as a man, and Giorgi Gegechkori as an old man) is always involved in some highly ritualized actions, especially when courting his love (also Chiaureli; she has a few other roles). The only naturalism in any of the actions of the film is when stepping on rugs to dry them, or on grapes to turn them into wine, chores like that. But there are also chores done ritualistically, like sacrificing goats. Even the horses high-step it. The whole thing brings to mind other such traditional performance artforms as kabuki theater and Peking opera. During the wedding scene (and its reprise), Death suddenly appears.

Everything is highly ritualized and stylized, and keyed to Armenian cultural and political symbolism, but I can’t help feeling the sense of liberation that infuses the film. To be able to make a film full of such daring imagery and masterful coherence, and to do so following a completely different cinematic grammar, must have been such a joyful experience, even with the censors breathing down one’s neck. Barely an inch of slack is granted the viewer; you have to jump entirely onto its wavelength or be left eternally behind. You can feel this artistic arrogance (a good thing, I aver) in the various scenes of people doing things with or to other people while looking not at the person but to the front. In the final shot, Sayat-Nova thrusts his chest out to the Angel of Resurrection (Chiaureli again) in spiritual ecstasy and agony, and she looks forward as she collects his soul by symbolically pouring pomegranate juice on him. In many other scenes, the Angel doesn’t even look to the front, instead staring in a direction all her own.

That haughtiness, that disdain, that artistic self-sufficiency is the essence of nonverbal cinema.

Editor’s note: This piece has been published at Critics at Large.

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