Tuesday, March 17, 2015

ND/NF ’15: K

This is Kafka like we have never seen him before: lusty and Mongolian. Our alienated protagonist is indeed a land surveyor stuck in a bureaucratic nightmare, but he is a rather surly slacker of a chap (and a bit of a horndog). Nonetheless, Inner Mongolia (the Chinese Autonomous Republic) stands in quite well for the vaguely Eastern European setting of Kafka’s The Castle in Darhad Erdenibulag & Emyr ap Richard’s K (trailer here) which screens during the 2015 edition of New Directors/New Films.

K, as he is still simply known, lacks the proper documentation to stay in the small provincial town governed by the nearby (yet conspicuously unseen) castle, despite having been summoned by the governor. Obviously, this causes a bit of an official quandary, especially when it is determined the original work request was sent out in error. Nevertheless, he is now an employee of the Castle, officially reporting to Minister Klamm, who has already palmed off the surveyor on the ailing town mayor.

Still believing he has actual work to do, K doggedly pursues a meeting with Klamm, unaware his actions constitute a serious breach of local protocol. He even takes up with Frieda, a tavern hostess who is rumored to be Klamm’s mistress, but his motives for that might be more carnal and less mercenary than many assume. Indeed, despite the precariousness of his position, K will have his share of hedonistic indulgences.

Although ap Richard’s screenplay simplifies the unfinished Kafka source novel, he is still relatively faithful to its overall storyline. K duly butts heads with Artur and Jeremias, the two locals assigned to serve as his assistants. He also becomes ambiguously involved with the family of Castle messenger Barnabas, particularly his older sister Olga.

Frankly, the oddest thing about ap Richard’s adaptation is how much fun it allows K. Up until the closing sequences, he and Erdenibulag maintain a tone that is better described as eccentric than surreal or, shall we say, Kafkaesque. Since they largely dispense with the paperwork motif, it is even more challenging to read allegorical significance into their updated re-conception. However, they certainly capture a grubby sense of provincial corruption.

As K, Bayin serves partly as the film’s straight man and partly as its madman, but he is a weirdly effective in both capacities. Jula similarly keeps the audience off balance as the possible femme fatale Frieda, while both Yirgui and Jüdengowa have surprisingly touching scenes as Olga and Pepi, Frieda’s barmaid successor, respectively.

It is entirely possible that there is only enough room in the world for one lascivious Mongolian Chinese Kafka adaptation, but K (co-produced by Jia Zhangke) fills that spot rather nicely. Erdenibulag and ap Richard create a strange and irrational world, but it is not as nearly as existentially soul-deadening as most takes on Kafka tend to be. It ends in a rather ambiguous place, but when you leave the theater the sun will still shine and the birds will still chirp. Recommended as an idiosyncratic but mostly successful cross-pollenated oddity, K screens this Saturday (3/21) at the Walter Reade and Sunday (3/22) at MoMA, as part of this year’s ND/NF.