Thursday 30 March 2017

Under The Shadow

Djiin And Tonic

Under The Shadow
UK/Iran/Jordan/Qatar 2016
Directed by Babak Anvari
Precision Pictures DVD Region 2

I’ve been meaning to catch up to this Iranian horror movie since it played the festivals here in September of last year and, while I was in Fopp at the weekend, I thought I’d pick up a copy. After searching their horror section for a Blu Ray for quite a while I enquired after it and the guy behind the counter told me that the company who put it out didn’t bother with a Blu Ray release for this country. You could tell he was angry about it and I joined him in this anger... it’s pretty outrageous that you can’t get hold of films which you’d hope would be playing in a couple of screens of your local multiplex but were never even shown there, and that they would be made available in the best quality format possible. Especially with the warm reception this one had. These companies should really have a think about what they're doing now. This kind of crime against filmanity isn’t acceptable in this day and age.

Then I got further enraged because, instead of being in the horror section, the DVD, which was already only a fiver because, you know, it wasn’t a proper Blu Ray... was placed in a world cinema section instead. Okay... really people, there should be no need for a ‘world cinema’ section. We’re all one world. Those kind of artificial boundaries created so 'idiots who can’t read' are able to better avoid properly subtitled films should be banished from shops and instead everything should be listed together and in alphabetical order. With the odd categories like science fiction, westerns and horror maybe thrown in for good measure... although that obviously doesn’t take into account cross-pollinated genres so, yeah, maybe not even that.

Anyway, for a very cheap price I finally got to see Under The Shadow and it was well worth the wait and, it has to be said, more than worth the price of admission. The film is set in the Iraq/Iranian war in 1980s Tehran and the credits start off with actual footage from those times. We then focus on an interview, of sorts, as the main female protagonist of the movie, Shideh, played skillfully by the beautiful Narges Rashidi, tries and fails to get back into her University course where she was studying to be a doctor before she became ‘politically active’. The way of life for these people is drummed home effectively when a big explosion outside the office window goes off without any reaction other than for both of the characters in the room to casually look around when the explosion occurs, offering testament to the matter of factness of the loss of life in this part of the world at this time. When Shideh goes home to pick up her young daughter Dorsa, the other main protagonist of the film, played by Avin Manshadi, the director did something which really won me over in terms of this movie.... but I’ll get to that in a paragraph or two.

Shideh is living with her doctor husband and her daughter in an apartment but something’s wrong with their place, although Shideh doesn’t realise or even accept it yet. Her daughter receives a good luck charm to ward off evil spirits, specifically a djinn spirit, from an ‘adopted’ child in another apartment but things go wrong for her when she loses it. Now the djinn steals her favourite doll and, once it gets a hold on her consciousness, it proceeds to try to steal Dorsa away from her mother, setting up emotional barriers between the two. Things get worse once Shideh’s husband is called up to be a doctor in the war and he leaves home, strongly suggesting that, since Tehran is rumoured to be hit with missiles soon, Shideh and Dorsa go to stay with his parents. And so, as various neighbours move out before the rumoured bombs start flying, the movie becomes about Shideh and Dorsa living with the possibility that something very strange is going on in the house until, eventually, they are the only ones left with the malevolent spirit and battle commences.

The acting is excellent and you really feel for Shideh and what is going on with her situation. And it’s supported by amazing cinematography, shot design and editing which completely push this movie into a special place. The director uses big vertical blocks of texture/colour within the movie, which is mostly set in the interior of the block of flats and these big bold statements really provide a lot of scope for visually anchoring what is essentially 'a ghost story' and exploiting the shapes and depths of the shot design to frightening and, often, beautiful effect.

That thing he did which first impressed me, for instance, which occurs when Shideh first goes to pick up Dorsa from a neighbour, totally blew me away. We have a shot where Shideh is standing in a corridor and about to knock on her neighbour’s door. The big shape, dark colour and texture of the door takes up the right hand half of the shot with our main protagonist highlighted to the left of it on the other half of the screen. Then, as her neighbour answers the door, the camera is panned around a little at roughly the same speed to take in what’s through the doorway. Because the door opens inwards, the door shape has now switched to take up the left half of the screen and we see Shideh’s neighbour framed perfectly in the right hand space of the shot. I nearly fell off my chair when I saw how perfectly this was done.

This is fantastic stuff but the director also makes good use of certain realities of living in a zone where there are lots of explosions going off. Namely in how the windows of the flat are decorated. I’ve heard of this before, although never seen it done but... the windows have masking tape placed around the edges and crossing in the middle so that, if any bombs go off in the vicinity, the shockwave is less likely to take out the windows with it. And, of course, since the flat has a fair few windows, the director can make real good use of this by pitching light in through the windows to leave ominous looking crosses of shadow throughout the apartment at key moments. It’s a nice idea and it works really well.

He doesn’t just use the visual elements to single out areas where he wants your attention either. There’s some nice use of sound to hone in on things too. For instance, there are a number of scenes where Shideh is seen doing her daily workout regime. It’s basically using an old, diving board buttoned VHS machine with a copy of the once popular Jane Fonda workout cassette in it but, as things get just a little more intense for Shideh and her grasp of what’s going on in the apartment, there’s a scene where this gorgeous actress is seen doing her aerobics but, as we move closer to her, the soundtrack of the cassette is dialled down to nothing and this really helps the mind focus on the figure of a mother flying in the face of adversity and sticking her routine.

That moment also ties up nicely to another scene later in the movie where, for reasons I won’t reveal here, Shideh no longer has the tape and so she still, just silently, does her usual routine but without the constant input of Ms. Fonda to help her. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of how directors like Kurosawa or Friedkin would sometimes use the sound design to focus in or provide a stark, sobering contrast to something which has come before, or sometimes after, a specific moment in a movie.

The other thing I got out of this was just how different the culture is in this country compared to the unfortunate people who lived in Tehran at the time. For instance, a scene where Shideh has to tell off her child for mentioning the video recorder in front of a stranger because they are not allowed to have such things says a lot about the society she lives in. As does the sequence where she grabs her kid in fear, runs into the street and is promptly detained or not wearing enough clothing covering all of her body. It really shows how ‘in the dark ages’ some cultures are, especially with their attitude to the female contingent of their population. To the writer's credit, the dialogue given to the policeman who detains Shideh shows his ignorant attitude in a negative light too so... yeah. Something to think about, I suspect.

All in all, I had a great time with Under The Shadow and would heartily recommend it, not just to fans of a slowly building ghost story but also to the general cineaste at large. The characters and their situations are haunting, if maybe not quite terrifying, and the shot design and gravitas of some of the situations combine well to give a truly outstanding film. Definitely don’t let this one slip into obscurity... it deserves better.

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