Possession of the Mind

Picture 7
Mest (Ermek Shinarbaev, 1989)

Another saved and restored masterful film by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation is Ermek Shinarbaev’s fantastic Mest (English: Revenge). This obscure Kazakhstani film represents the best of the Kazakh New Wave cinema which in turn helped to bring forth filmmakers like Sergei Bodrov (who is famous for his Oscar-nominated film Mongol and who is coming out with a Hollywood fantasy film called Seventh Son).

Mest is a couple’s obsession with the murder of their only daughter and the father does everything in his power to avenge her death. Shinarbaev’s style is deliberate, with sparse and motionless settings coupling with haunting, intense music to display a festering meditative anger that his characters experience every day. The movie is separated into 5 chapters, depicting the separation of thought processes when it comes form avenging a loved one. The father’s blatantly quick attempt at the beginning to murder the perpetrator goes awry and he realizes that revenge is methodical, it must be paced and given a chance to grow and evolve. The father’s obsession takes him to the point where he births a sons solely for the purpose of having him carry out the vengeance if the father himself is not able to. This theme within the film is a brilliant play on world politics, where hatred amongst people remains and grows even more deadly through generations. Shinarbaev however, is not a pure cynic. He implements sequences of divine intervention and implies a presence of the divine through his lighting techniques, with a dark foreground juxtaposed to a blinding light shining through a window in the distance. This effect, for symbolism’s sake, is a call for awareness that evil and good, dark and light, God and the Devil always accompany each other.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the implication of violence, which is never actually shown on screen. I wonder if the New Wave cinema of Kazakhstan was still under artistic restraints from the Soviet Union at the time because all of the major violent action is off-screen and merely meant to be “implied” or “imagined”. The murders, tortures and beatings that some characters go through are left as background noise of screaming and crying in pain, but never shown. Was the Soviet government behind this censorship and for what reason would they want to censor it? Or perhaps it was a deliberate choice for Shinarbaev, another symbol that, just like the light, we can be assured violence and evil exist, even if we are not able to see it first hand.

Either way, Shinarbaev’s Mest is an incredible film and it’s a hidden gem of cinema that must be watched. The most unfortunate thing is that aside from a Criterion Collection DVD via WCF, it might be almost impossible to find.

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