“Ses”: The wisdom of your inner voice? (Emine Yıldırım)

The supernatural thriller genre does not occur frequently among Turkish productions. That said, this must not be confused with the related horror genre attempts that have gained momentum in recent years (e.g., “D@bbe,” “Musallat” and “Araf”). The most significant Turkish horror film still remains the Taylan Brothers’ “Küçük Kıyamet” (Little Apocalypse) because, like most successful examples from its genre, it was a lot more than the usual scares and gore; it played as an in-depth investigation into the psychology of earthquake trauma.

Directed by the prolific Ümit Ünal (this being his third film in the past two years after the stylish “Gölgesizler” [Shadowless] and forgettable “Kaptan Feza” [Captain Feza]) and written by film critic and short film director Uygar Şirin, “Ses” (The Voice) is what one could consider a technical and contextual achievement, perhaps even bound to be a local box office hit.

Surely the film does not present anything new to the genre, but it at least does not smell like a rotten Hollywood rip-off thanks to its spatter of local motifs and cultural references without the usual misogyny of female torture. In fact, there’s a distinct line of the male lead, clearly addressing the problems of Western envy and stale literary adaptations: “Oh those foreign high school graduates, they talk like a subtitled movie.” We all know where that’s coming from, no offense to those who have graduated from these schools, myself included.

And of course, we begin with a petrified beautiful young woman, suffering from low self-esteem and, in this case, an inexplicable case of aural disturbance. Derya (played by the frail yet of pleasant composure Selma Ergeç) lives with her aging mother (Işık Yenersu) in one of those historic İstanbul houses that maintains unequivocally an enchanting yet unnerving vibe (check Giovanni Scognamillo’s “İstanbul Mysteries, Holy Tombs and Beliefs” for further atmospheric reference). Derya works at a call center — making things even worse, as dealing with a ghost’s voice can sometimes be better than dealing with customer calls. Her best friend sits right next to her, and her boss, Onur (heartthrob Mehmet Günsür of “Hamam” fame), is across the room. There’s something intriguing, yet off, about Onur; he seems to have cared for Selma since their childhood as the two families are close friends, but he doesn’t seem to have gotten over his wife’s unfortunate death a year ago.

The voice inside Derya’s head, which increasingly sounds like that of a sexual deviant (though the voice belongs to actress Selen Üçer, modified, of course), tells her to follow Onur and other clues that might enlighten her own past, which seems to not be what she thought it was. Derya is also suffering from terrible nightmares — the sort that become pure paradise for such movies utilizing the subconscious as a perfect trapeze for contrasted lighting and ominous art direction. It seems that she has an inexplicable phobia of knives and the dark. When Derya finds a photograph of Onur and his family from two decades ago (the kind that reeks with uncanny nostalgia with its orange filter), she further seeks the path of the voice, which has almost taken control of her daily life, and encounters a retired wet nurse (a brilliant Serra Yılmaz, spookily funny with her lines) who gives her a clue about Onur’s troubled childhood, which also seems to include her. Alas, the voice that haunts Derya will eventually reveal all and bring the film to a climax that would put a smile on Freud’s bearded face.

The strong and weak points of “Ses” seem to stem from the same place — its high regard for illustrating an intelligent and psychological thriller of depth where the expected scares serve the purpose of the main human story of dysfunctional and traumatized families — yet the scenes which specifically highlight the drama and not the suspense tend to perform weakly as the emotional dynamic between the characters could have been more engaging. One of the most important scenes playing through a Skype conversation on the one hand works for the sheer desperation of the situation, but on the other lacks the emotional climax that might further elevate the film to the status of a classic.

For the most part, the film’s real theme (which cannot be revealed at this point for spoilers) is so familiar to Turkish culture that it achieves in portraying a remarkable zeitgeist that no other films of related genres have been able to present.

All things considered, Ünal brings a well-crafted tale of agony (the kind of agony that’s worth pondering) with the help of astounding cinematography from Türksoy Gölebeyi, tight editing from Çiçek Kahraman and Natalin Solakoğlu, mesmerizingly painful art direction from Elif Taşçıoğlu and not to mention the powerful sound design (which holds the motif skeleton of the film) by Burak Topalakçı and Sascha Walker. Kudos to the cast and crew, who bring a film catering to all tastes, mainstream and independent.

(Today’s Zaman, 6.3.2010)

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