The fourth adaptation of Franz Kafka‘s jet-black existential novel The Castle, Emyr ap Richard and Darhad Erdenibulag‘s production turns on a very strange premise. While the previous three attempts – from Rudolf Noelte (1968), Alexei Balabanov (1994) and finally Michael Haneke (1997) – are very much loyal to the writer’s wintry, nocturnal and mitteleuropa settings, K relocates the Austrian-Czech writer’s work to a terrain drenched in harsh, desaturated sunlight.
But the novelty of seeing a Kafka story being played out in a Central Asian town wears off pretty quickly. Despite the geographical dislocation, the Wales-born photographer-writer-filmmaker Richard and the Mongolian director Edernibulag have somehow stripped their source material of nearly all its edge. What should have been a chronicle of a man’s Sisyphean struggle against invisible and incomprehensible odds is now transformed into a piece of conventional human drama, its titular protagonist contending more with his paramours than the politics around him.
Sunlight strips an existential tale of its raison d’etre
K received its world premiere at the Berlinale’s Forum section before traveling back east, where it makes its bow as an entry of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Young Cinema Competition. While not exactly a departure in style like Balabanov’s version, or an attempt to illustrate the absurdity of existence in a dehumanized social system, as in Haneke’s, K should be able to secure more festival bookings thanks to ts peculiar Mongolian setting and the presence of Jia Zhangke as a producer through his Xstream Productions.
Following in the footsteps of Maximilian Schell and Ulrich Mühe is Mongolian thesp Bayin, who plays the film’s protagonist as a long-haired, uncouth brute who arrives in a nameless town and discovers the impossibility of securing the land surveyor position offered to him from the local authorities. With his overtures toward authorities constantly rebuffed or left dangling by uninterested officials, his standing in his new home spirals downward. His initial arrogance as a self-styled embodiment of civilization dissipates gradually even in the eyes of his erstwhile assistants Artur (Altanochir) and Jeremias (Zandaraa).
It certainly could be interesting to see how Kafka’s tale of alienation would pan out in a modern, post-industrial setting. But Richard and Edernibulag zero in more on K’s matters of the heart, presenting sexual desire as conspicuous rather than concealed.
Here, the protagonist’s libido is as primitive as his coarse appearance, with female characters – his love interest Frieda (Jula), or the siblings Olga (Yirgui) and Amalia (Ariuna) from a family deemed pariahs in the town – who are extraordinarily statuesque to the point of distraction. Physicality and intimacy are shown here more vividly than Kafka would ever even consider. All this makes visceral and carnal sense, but it’s not exactly appropriate for a tale whose power is meant to stem from its illustration of how absurd human society can be.
Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival (Young Cinema Competition); Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Production companies: Xstream Pictures, East Light Film, Beijing Y & Y Film Development
Cast: Bayin, Jula, Yirgui, Altanochir, Zandaraa
Directors: Emyr ap Richard, Darhad Erdenibulag
Screenwriter: Emyr ap Richard, based on Franz Kafka’s novel “The Castle”
Producers: Jia Zhangke, Emyr ap Richard, Justine O with Tao Li, Tsiring, Zhang Dong, Zhao Siyuan
Executive producers: Jia Zhangke, Jessica N. Liu
Director of photography: Matthieu Laclau
Production designers: Emyr ap Richard, Darhad Erdenibulag
Costumes: Yang Junyi, Liu Shuwei
Editor: Matthieu Laclau
Sound designer: Zhang Yang
International Sales: Xstream Pictures
No rating; 86 minutes