This is the first time in recent memory that there hasn’t been an Iranian film directed by someone I’m familiar with; or maybe I should say it’s the first time there hasn’t been an available Iranian film directed by someone I’m familiar with. As with South Korea, Iranian cinema exists, to me at least, on a slightly higher plane than other national cinemas, meaning that besides the pleasures of art house features that are unique to Iran, the country’s mainstream films are technically, stylistically, and narratively more sophisticated across the board. Which isn’t to say there isn’t the occasional dud, but even when an Iranian movie falls into trite sentimentality or over-earnestness, there’s still something refreshingly original about it, and, again, as with South Korean films, I think it has something to do with the enormous amount of competition among the country’s established film professionals.
So I felt rather confident in choosing to watch The Slaughterhouse at random. It’s the third feature by Abbas Amini, who initially made his name with socially minded documentaries, and there’s a studied quality to the story that shows how a great deal of research went into the theme. It’s basically a thriller, but one whose central mystery becomes almost incidental to the larger picture, even though it spurs the action right up until the end. Abed, an excitable middle aged man who once worked for the government but now makes a living as a security guard at a slaughterhouse, finds three dead men locked in the facility’s large refrigerator. He calls the owner as well as his own son, Amir, who has recently been released from prison, where he spent two years for assaulting a policeman in France. The owner blames Abed for the deaths, saying that the men must have wandered into the refrigerator and the door shut behind them. Faced with an obvious police interrogation and probably punishment for death by neglect, Abed begs his son to help him get rid of the bodies, and the three men bury them in a shallow grave near a wall of the abattoir.
It’s hardly an original idea, and the viewer automatically perceives that the worst is bound to happen to one if not all three of the men involved, but then Amini’s skills with social investigation kicks in and we find that the slaughterhouse is mainly a front business. The owner mostly makes a living by smuggling dollars into Iran and exchanging them on the black market. Abed seems to know something about this occupation, since he once partook of it himself (it may be the reason he lost his government job), but Amir, the protagonist and the person with the most to lose, given his ex-con status, is sucked in as well, not only because he desperately needs money to get out of his father’s house, but also in order to put the ugly incident of the secret burial behind him, which is easier said than done. Needless to say, the deeper he dives into the illegal black market in dollars, the closer he gets to finding out the truth about the three dead men.
Besides having a close understanding of this world, Amini knows how to use that knowledge to create tension, and along the way he shows, through implication and indirection, how the isolation of Iran by both its own government and the rest of the world (it’s particularly ironic that dollars are so valuable, given that the U.S. is Iran’s chief nemesis) has crippled its economy so completely. The requisite scenes of animals being made into meat in the slaughterhouse fit nicely alongside those with men crowded in a dark plaza trading their dollars for the best prices, as if they were brokers on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Someone is being skinned.
In that light, the movie I chose next, mainly because of its brevity, was perfect in contrast. As I said, South Korean films are a cut above, regardless where they start from. Vestige, a 70-minute curiosity made up of two short films commissioned for a film festival in the mountain town of Muju, was hardly a promotional or vanity project. I have no idea if the two directors, Kim Jong-kwan or Jang Kun-jae, are from Muju, but they seem to have a deep empathy for small town lives.
Kim’s offering presents a scraggly woman who gets off a bus in Muju and proceeds to walk a long distance into a forest, where she digs up a metal container. She takes the container, along with some candles she buys at a convenience store, to an abandoned house, where she performs a kind of exorcising ritual. In a brief flashback, we learn that she once lived in this house with her teenage daughter, and that she made some kind of living as a shaman. The film is nearly wordless, highly evocative of the location, and spooky in a Lynchian way. And while it isn’t scary, its particular breed of melancholy gets under your skin.
Jang’s half elaborates on this theme by focusing on two civil servants who are cohabitating in a house that looks suspiciously similar to the one in Kim’s film. They discuss the friends who went away and those who never will. As a precis of small town life it’s both familiar and haunting. Just from their conversations, one gets an intimate feeling of what it’s like to grow up here, and the movie mirrors the first one with a tribute to all those inhabitants who are no longer around to defend their corner of the world. I don’t know if this is what Muju had in mind when they asked these two filmmakers to honor their town, but what they got was extraordinarily poignant and evocative. What’s particularly striking is that this movie, made so exactly to specifications, will probably never be seen by anyone other than its target viewership, and yet it deserves so much more attention.