Beauty and mystery abound in this Turkish gem

Bal (Honey)

on March 28, 2011 by Mark Keizer
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Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu's "Yusuf Trilogy" concludes with Honey, a gorgeously shot, deeply interior portrait of the artist as a young introvert. Seen together, the three films (the first two being Egg and Milk) are a reverse order chronicle of the life of a poet. In Honey, we discover the defining relationship that would force Yusuf's retreat into a world of secrets and loneliness from which great poetry often springs. Kaplanoğlu is not one for dialogue or outward expressions of sentiment, so credit young Bora Altas and his wondrously innocent lead performance with securing our emotional investment. Honey won the Golden Bear at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, which should loosen the wallets of fest-heads and foreign film buffs.

Kaplanoğlu's approach is slow and studied to the point of inertia. It is, however, an appropriate and strikingly beautiful representation of how Yusuf (Altas) sees the world. A quiet boy of 6, Yusuf enjoys a strong bond with his beekeeper father, Yakup (Erdal Besikçioglu). Son often accompanies father into the forest on his beekeeping journeys, which require dangerous climbs to the tops of towering trees so Yakup can hang his honey-producing hives. Yusuf's embrace of his father and fascination with the mysterious forest are strengthened by his difficulties in school. With Yakup, the youngster reads aloud comfortably. In class, his stutter is so pronounced that he becomes the object of ridicule. A glass bowl containing merit badges looms over Yusuf's tiny frame and Kaplanoğlu shoots down through the warped glass to emphasize the chasm between the boy and normal socialization.

There is a third major character in Honey, one with as much influence on Yusuf as his father: the forest is lush, dense and teeming with natural sound (an evocative aural thicket credited to Matthias Haeb). Most crucially, the forest is eternal, a place of divine beauty that DP Barış Özbiçer captures with a spiritual richness reminiscent of John Toll's Oscar nominated work on The Thin Red Line. Özbiçer's compositions and lighting are equally striking in the interior scenes, as shallow depth of field isolates Yusuf from his schoolmates and deepening, painterly shadows convey the sorrow that encroaches upon the lives of Yusuf and his mother Zehra (Tülin Özen).

With the bees in the nearby forest disappearing, Yakup must leave his mountainous Turkish village and trek to a distant forest to plant his hives. His departure and subsequent disappearance sends Yusuf further inside himself. This becomes the only section where Kaplanoğlu's film threatens to achieve an unfortunate state of hibernation. Previously, the long takes, lock-down shots and gentle momentum visually reproduced Yusuf's curiosity and sense of discovery. Because Yusuf will only talk to his father, his absence temporarily upsets that balance, leaving us scant clues as to his state of mind. One thing is certain, though. In this riff on the Biblical story of Joseph and Jacob, Kaplanoğlu gives us a father/son relationship that goes beyond religion to a more universal concept of spiritual connection. In a key moment early on, Yakup tells his son never to speak of his dreams aloud. They are to be whispered into his father's ear and their contents are to remain between them. With Yakup's whereabouts unknown, Yusuf has no one to whisper to. Except, of course, the forest to which Yakup has returned. Both are quietly powerful providers of all things and keepers of all secrets. Tragically, by the end of Kaplanoğlu's lyrical film, secrets are all Yusuf has left.

Distributor: Olive Films
Cast: Bora Altas, Erdal Besikçioglu and Tülin Özen
Director/Screenwriter: Semih Kaplanoğlu
Producers: Semih Kaplanoğlu and Orcun Koksal
Genre: Drama; Turkis-language, subtitled
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 102 min.
Release date: March 25 ltd.

Tags: Bora Altas, Erdal Besikçioglu, Tülin Özen, Semih Kaplanoğlu
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