The surreal black humor underlying Mani Haghighi’s ironic studies of middle-class Iranian life — Men At Work, Canaan, Modest Reception — bursts out in his new Berlin competition entry Pig (Khook), a truly kooky story about a frustrated film director unable to make movies because he’s on the black list. When a serial killer starts beheading the country’s finest filmmakers, our vain hero is horrified that he’s not been murdered — doesn’t he deserve it?
The tale obviously brings the government’s reprehensible practice of blacklisting filmmakers and other artists out in the open for all to see, though Haghighi (who also wrote the screenplay and produced) steers clear of controversy as much as possible. He studiously avoids mentioning famously blacklisted director Jafar Panahi and boldly highlights the film’s farcical aspect, so it will probably join his recent comedy 50 Kilos of Sour Cherries as a domestic hit. Nevertheless, one of the first three directors found beheaded is Rakshan Bani-Etemad, who has promoted women’s and social issues in her work and challenged the unwritten censorship code.
An energetic stab at screwball comedy.
Also quite chilling, when you think about it, is the single word the ferocious killer inscribes on the victims’ foreheads with a knife: PIG. It’s a contemptuous punch, hidden in plain sight. So, although it seems almost buried in the colorful shenanigans, Pig’s political message is there, and this is what the film will be chiefly remembered for.
The other dominant theme is the power of social media to destroy a person’s reputation. Though Facebook and Twitter are officially blocked in Iran, Instagram and Telegram count tens of millions of active users. The opening scene shows four schoolgirls chattering and checking out their Instagram accounts while they walk past a severed head. Later, the main character, Hasan Kasmai (Hasan Majuni), will be judged without a jury on social media when an angry stalker posts a compromising video of him. These days, such things are too routine to be newsworthy, and the film’s ending, revolving around a vendetta on Instagram, comes as a bit of a comic letdown. But the theme is always headlessness.
The film opens on a fourth murder; this time, the disembodied head belongs to none other than Mani Haghighi. His friend Hasan is dragged to the morgue to identify him, and faints.
Hairy-faced and overweight in his vintage rock t-shirts and with an acidic, bad-humored personality, Majuni’s Hasan offers little reason to be liked. He surrounds himself with women who baby him — his wife, daughter, mother — and expects total reverence and sympathy from them all. It’s surprisingly obvious that he’s having an affair with his former leading lady, Shiva (delicately played by iconic star Leila Hatami in a rare comic role), with the tacit consent of his wife. But now that he can’t shoot films anymore, Shiva is preparing to “betray” him by making a picture with the pretentious director Saidi, which motivates several hissy fits by the abandoned Hasan.
His enforced retirement as a film director leaves him ample time to play tennis with doctor friend Homayun (Siamak Ansari), and he can still direct advertising. An insecticide commercial he’s shooting showcases a group of attractive girls dancing in a poisonous cloud of gas. They wear costume designer Negar Nemati’s bright red tutus and yellow galoshes, with their hair hidden inside ridiculous insect helmets.
When someone mentions the word “dance” (it’s taboo to perform in public, especially for women), Hasan corrects them with Monty Python logic: They’re not dancing, they’re “moving in unison.” Among the movers is the beautiful Annie (Parinaz Izadyar), Hasan’s pushy long-time stalker, who begs him for a role in his next film, knowing full well he can’t make one.
In the grand tradition of movies about narcissistic film directors, Pig does a convincing job exposing the vanity and insecurity of the fellow behind the camera. Hasan is an angry bear of a man whose public roar belies an immature, crybaby persona at home. When he realizes he’s being passed over as a target by the mysterious serial killer, he’s assailed by doubts about his artistic self-worth and seeks comfort in the arms of his elderly mother, who is ready to defend his life with an antique rifle.
In these moments the comedy becomes alarmingly broad, leaving festival audiences behind. The middle part of the film is more smile-worthy. In one amusing scene, Hasan and Homayun attend a decadent costume party in a somebody’s mansion, wearing red insect costumes from the commercial. It’s not Hollywood Party, but it’s weird enough to be enjoyable. Later, dead drunk, they break into Saidi’s mansion to see if Shiva is there, and arrive at just the wrong time. Hasan is arrested and thrown into a barren cell, where he imagines himself playing air guitar on his tennis racket in an exhilarating, full-on rock sequence.
The final act is darker, as the full extent of Hasan’s narcissicism and the lengths he’s willing to go to be famous and loved emerge. Still, it feels like something is missing from the end, at least an acknowledgment that success has its price.
Pig is certainly more straightforward, less perplexing and exotic than Haghighi’s A Dragon Arrives! but also less visually intriguing. Here, cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari switches to the gaudy, unreal colors of stage costumes and the overblown, Felliniesque interiors designed by Amir Hossein Ghodsi. Peyman Yazdanian’s score keeps pace with the film’s mood, culminating in Hasan’s heavy metal fantasy.
Production companies: Dark Precursor Productions in association with Tasvir Gostar Pasargad, Films Boutique
Cast: Hasan Majuni, Leila Hatami, Leili Rashidi, Parinaz Izadyar, Mina Jafarzadeh, Aynaz Azarhoosh, Ali Bagheri, Siamak Ansari, Ali Mosaffa, Soheila Razavi
Director-screenwriter-producer: Mani Haghighi
Director of photography: Mahmoud Kalari
Production designer: Amir Hossein Ghodsi
Costume designer: Negar Nemati
Editor: Meysam Molaei
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Films Boutique