Dir: Semih Kaplanoglu. Turkey-France-Germany. 2008. 111mins.
Painfully slow but at the same time a resonant, elegiac coming of age story, the second installment in Turkish arthouse director Semih Kaplanoglu’s Yusuf trilogy shows him to be something of a magic-realist Terence Davies. But with its overlong shots in which almost nothing happens, this Venice competition entry represents a tough ride for audiences and, like his last film Egg (Yumurta), is likely to be more of a festival workhorse than a theatrical prospect.
Milk is cineaste to its marrow, working on a poetic as much as narrative level that owes debts to directors like Andrej Tarkovsky. The director has chosen to film his bildungsroman trilogy backwards in time: so Milk takes up the story of Egg’s adult protagonist, Yusuf, at the end of his school years, just before he moved to Istanbul. The third film in the series, Honey, will deal with Yusuf’s childhood.
Milk opens with a striking sequence in which a snake emerges from the mouth of a young peasant woman who has been suspended upside down from a tree over a pan of boiling milk. Like much else in the film, this rural exorcism is never explained. Instead the film follows beetle-browed dreamer Yusuf (Selcuk), who has just left school and is at a (very) loose end. Yusuf helps his single mother Zehra (a compelling Koklukaya) sell the milk and cheese she makes on their small dairy farm near Tire, but his real ambition is to be a poet - and he’s overjoyed when a small literary magazine publishes one of his works.
Coming of age, for Yusuf, involves the trauma of seeing his mother begin to date the local station master; being called up for military service, but rejected on medical grounds; and meeting a girl with similar literary tastes in an Izmir bookshop. But neither Zehra nor Yusuf’s romantic prologues are followed up; Kaplanoglu seems to pull back from narrative closure, preferring to pile on symbols (milk; snakes; a huge catfish that Yusuf catches with his bare hands) that the audience can run with or just treat as background decor. Certain scenes (an encounter with a fellow poet who works in a coal mine; another centring on some apartment dwellers’ rejection of Yusuf’s milk deliveries) hint at the uneasy modernisation rural Anatolia.
Milk is exquisitely shot and lit; even when Yusuf has a seizure and comes off his bright red motorbike, it’s in a very pretty part of the countryside. And the intelligent, busy sound design supports the trouble-in-paradise thrust of Kaplanoglu’s elegy, mixing birdsong, cicada whine and cowbells in with more menacing industrial sounds and traffic roars.
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