Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them. This episode: Dubai, August 2014.
The Americans always have to do things differently. If you go to the pictures in the US during the holiday pileup of Christmas, Hannukah and Kwanzaa, then you’ll get to see some of their classiest movies. But that’s just a consequence of the Oscars voting deadline also coming at the end of December. At any other time of the year – and in any other country – the big religious holidays are the cue for studios to release their biggest, dumbest crowdpleasers.
You might imagine that somewhere like the United Arab Emirates would be beyond that sort of nonsense. You would be wrong.
Late August turns out to be a really good time to test that theory. It’s shortly after Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic holiday marking the end of Ramadan and a month’s fasting, and it’s a couple of months before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. In preparation for the latter, right now UAE cinemas have lots of trailers for the Autumn’s Indian blockbusters on heavy rotation. If you think that Bollywood cinema these days is already too reliant on stars and overblown visual flash, can you imagine what it’ll be like in a holiday season?
Well, it’ll be like exactly like that. That was Happy New Year, the upcoming Diwali blockbuster that’s the latest collaboration between megastar Shah Rukh Khan and director Farah Khan. The trailer sets up the demented premise – a bunch of loveable criminals organises a jewel robbery that requires them to enter a dance competition as cover – but, more importantly, tells a UAE audience that the film will be largely set in Dubai, so there’ll be lots of familiar landmarks to look out for. It at least appears to have some sort of narrative underpinning it, which is more than can be said for the Hrithik Roshan vehicle Bang Bang!, the masala Knight And Day remake that precisely nobody was crying out for (although curiously, its biggest car chase was also filmed in the UAE – Abu Dhabi this time). Full marks, though, for choosing the release date of October 2nd, “the most peaceful day of the year” – Gandhi Jayanti, the holiday to celebrate the birth of Mahatma Gandhi. I’m sure it’s just what he would have wanted.
Neither of these films will be out for another month or two yet, so let’s put the Hindu festivities to one side and concentrate on the recently-celebrated Eid instead. It’s a big time for new films in the UAE: a quick peek at the box office stats for the holiday weekend shows that the top seven box office draws were all movies released that week. As ever in these UAE cinema roundups, we have to look to Egypt if we want to see Arabic language cinema: and in the middle of that admittedly terrible-looking lineup you can spot Made In Egypt (Soneia Fe Misr), the closest thing to a domestic holiday hit for Ramadan 2014. (Or Ramadan 1435, if you’re going to be picky about it.)
I’ve always struggled with Egyptian family-oriented cinema: on the evidence of Amn Dawlat and Tom & Jimmy I’ve come to expect low comedy mixed with child abduction and/or light-hearted depictions of torture. Made In Egypt starts off by introducing us to a man who owns a toyshop (I can’t find anything on the internet that gives the character names in English, so sorry if this gets a bit vague). He has a distracted relationship with his mum, dad and little sister: he’s trying to attract the attention of the nice girl in the clothes shop over the road, but she doesn’t really care. Everything changes one night, when – and I’ll start by giving you my initial interpretation of the plot – an accident involving water, electricity and the wishes of a child results in the unexpected coming to life of a six-foot-tall panda toy that’s the centrepiece of his shop. The panda proceeds to give relationship advice to the man, and you can more or less write the script from there.
I spent the whole film believing that this was the story, and then in the final few minutes – when the panda returns back to normal again, which is technically a spoiler but never mind – it became apparent that it was the man’s consciousness that had somehow passed into the panda, while still able to leave him walking around in his own body. So was he somehow in both bodies at once, being divided enough to have conversations with himself, but with enough overlap that the panda inherits some of his toy-making skills? A little bit of digging around reveals that the sister was the one who actually cursed him, and the result is an actual body swap, but it doesn’t explain how and why he’s still walking around.
I may be devoting too much thought to what is basically a big daft family comedy, albeit one where the hero spends much of the third act inside a pastel-coloured loony bin, getting regular sessions of comedy ECT to fulfil the torture quotient I mentioned earlier (no child abduction in this film, though, for a change). It’s all shot in a terrifyingly bright colour palette, taking the exaggerated hues of CGI animation and applying them to the real world. Without any idea of what’s going on verbally, the casual viewer can only pick up on the broad slapstick and dumb visual gags – although in the film’s defence, people of all ages were roaring at the dialogue when I was watching it. Of the three Arabic family comedies I’ve watched to date, Made In Egypt is the one that comes closest to the Western template of what a film for all ages should feel like, though I admit that isn’t saying much.
In Egypt itself, meanwhile, the big Eid domestic hit turned out to be The Blue Elephant (Al Feel Al Azrak), which is a bit of a surprise. This one doesn’t fit the holiday movie template, at least at first glance: it’s an adult thriller directed by Marwan Hamed, one of the few Egyptian directors to have an international arthouse hit (2006’s The Yacoubian Building). I’d imagine this film is also expected to travel around the world, which is presumably why the print I saw in a Dubai multiplex had unexpected English subtitles attached to it. Good for overall comprehension, but bad for the USP of this series, reducing it to Films I’ve Seen Overseas And You Haven’t Ner Ner-Ner Ner Ner. Still, let’s press on regardless.
It’s the story of Dr Yehia Rashed (Karim Abdel Aziz), a psychotherapist returning to work following a five-year absence. This hiatus was caused by a traumatic event that he doesn’t really want to talk about, which is always a good sign in his profession. He’s assigned to a criminal psychiatry ward to help him get back into the swing of things, but his first case turns out to be an awkward one: Sherif Al Kordy (Khaled El Sawy), an ex-medical school buddy of his who has, in rapid succession, got himself a big scary head tattoo and murdered his wife. Yehia keeps schtum regarding their previous connection – well, connections, as it turns out – and tries to get to the bottom of Sharif’s case.
One thing you’ve got to say in the film’s favour is that it’s a carefully calibrated slow build. As Sharif scrawls random numbers on the walls and babbles about seeing people nobody else can, we find ourselves alongside Yehia searching for clues to his patient’s psychosis. But slowly, Sharif starts exhibiting moments of clarity, and we begin to realise there’s a possibility he may be stringing his therapist along. And as the reasons for Yehia’s five-year sickie come to light, the story becomes an intriguing battle of wits between the two, where we’re never entirely sure who’s sane and who isn’t: a cat and mouse game where the roles of the cat and the mouse keep switching.
But gradually, it becomes apparent that there’s another route that the plot could take – and once the pigmented pachyderm of the title is introduced, there’s a real sense of the brakes coming off the story. It’s initially a slow transition, thanks to some subtle effects work: but everything gets more and more unhinged as time goes on, eventually hitting a point where the film’s admirable visual ambition outstrips the technical capabilities of the crew. And once you’ve twigged the genre shift at the heart of the narrative, it becomes less interesting.
Not that watching a film go completely out of control is a bad thing, of course, and The Blue Elephant slyly acknowledges that in its final scene. It’s always fascinating to look at: it’s just that the dark psychological drama of its first half is more interesting than the generic freeform freakout of its second. Still, the gamble taken by Marwan Hamed and his crew – that a post-Ramadan audience would be, um, hungry for some darker counter-programming amid the usual fluffy holiday fare – appears to have paid off. Maybe they should try that over here.