The Forsaken Land (2005) La Terre Abandonnée / Sulanga Enu Pinisa

Country: Sri Lanka
Director: Vimukthi Jayasundara
Language: Sinhala
Runtime: 108 minutes
Starring: Kaushalaya Fernando, Nilupili Jayawardena, Hemasiri Liyanage, Saumya Liyanage
Theme: War

Ratings: IMDb.com: 6.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 63%

Film Festivals:
2005 Cannes Film Festival: Un Certain Regard

Awards:
2005 Cannes Film Festival: Camera D’Or
2005 Cinefan – Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema: Asian and Arab Competition Special Jury Award

Vimukthi Jayasundara is a young Sri Lankan director currently residing in Paris in a cross-border product that is very much French and Sri Lankan. In director interviews he has mentioned the much venerated Sri Lankan auteur Lester James Peries whose films like the Cannes Palme d’Or nominated Rekava (1957) often depict family life amidst rural settings and featuring conflicted characters. But the stunning cinematography comes across as a form influenced by French Surrealism instead, unflinching in its capture of the vast desolate landscape that harbors a tragic aura of death. This, a metaphysical consequence of a disquieting landscape brought about only by the scars of decades of civil war. The peace is ominous and perhaps even fragile, and “men and women drift through life as if they were ghosts, casualties of a civil war that hangs over them like a curse” (Dargis, 2006) in a state of “suspended animation” (Acquarello, 2008).

The movie opens with a folk instrument soundtrack, and a man is captured strolling around vast open plains. He walks out and back into the frame several times, each time nearer the camera until he turns around. The non-diagetic background music cuts off, with only the remnants being the chilling, billowing sound of the wind, an undertone of the disquieting sense of the movie. The land is “forsaken”, and hence a metaphorical assumption is how it has been abandoned by God. Not a heavenly being watches over the land, and the characters are left in a struggle to fend for themselves in a military-guarded area. But the characters still believe apparently, though whether or not this is a front is anyone’s guess. The husband utters, “I believe in Buddha and the Gods, and go on a pilgrimate each year.” His counterpart adds that he wants to fly a helicopter as it is tantamount to “making love to God” (27:40). The wife has sex with another man in the lush Sri Lankan jungle, and the spying sister bites into a fruit, as a seeming reference to Adam & Eve (33:35), and the inherent lust and temptation.

The camera harshly captures seemingly everyday actions of the wife washing her feet, as seen from outside the toilet. She undresses, and washes herself (05:37). She leaves home and stares motionless at a military tank rolling past her home (07:31), and the tank repositions its barrel. The mise-en-scene at 10:05 has the camera position the frame in the same way as its opening cene. The wife backfaces the camera and the husband pays no attention to her whatsoever. The first words are uttered only at 12:48, when a war veteran says to his younger counterpart, “Forgive me, I’ve been drinking”. This wasn’t even a conversation as the words prompted the latter to walk away, and out of the frame. Nudity is prevalent, providing a hint to the sexual undertones of the scene. The sister, for instance, stands entirely naked by the window grille and glances outside.

The characters seem emotionally vacant, and their relationships virtually barren and superfluous below the surface. A boy stares at his kite stuck amid the trees, and the veteran soldier attempts to retrieve it. Failing which, he simply walks away (52:52). The director does away with explicit explanations, and the only implicit assumption to be made is that they have been devastated due to the harsh realities of the war. We know there is a husband-wife pair living with the husband’s sister. The wife hates her sister-in-law, and the palpable tension crackles. And while they ignore each other, their bottled stresses unleash as the wife seeks solace by having sex with another man in the forest while the sister-in-law acts as the village vigilante and whistleblower. There is very ltitle interaction amid the characters with long-established relationships, and the characters are singular in many scenes. The old veteran, for instance, upon being humiliated by a team of young guards, lies naked on the field and waits for a thunderstorm to hit; the camera panning over his naked butt (43:10). The characters simply observe, without engaging much with each other, and Jayasundara invites the audience to join in. As such, due to the visceral notion of the film, there is scant dialogue, plenty of long takes, and minimal plot and action as the overwhelming atmosphere and setting take center focus amid the strong sexual undertones. An austere façade of serenity, the viewer is brought through a voyeuristic process that pries at what lies beneath this stillness.

References

Acquarello (2008). Notes on the Cinema Stylographer: The Forsaken Land (2005). Retrieved on November 7, 2010, from http://www.filmref.com/notes/archives/2008/08/the_forsaken_land_2005.html.

Dargis, M. (2006, June 23). Movie ReviewThe Forsaken Land (2005). Retrieved on November 7, 2010, from http://movies.nytimes.com/2006/06/23/movies/23fors.html.