There’s poetry in “The Forsaken Land” — not the written kind (there’s barely any dialogue) — but visual poetry replete with still, painterly compositions and finely nuanced lighting. Unfortunately Vimukthi Jayasundara, in his feature helming debut, also shows a lack of subtlety and a penchant for pacing so glacial it makes 100 plus minutes feel much longer. Demoralized characters stuck in a war-torn no-man’s land drift from weariness to despair, trying audience patience somewhere along the way. Far too avant-garde for Sri Lankan screens, pic’s sustainability is possible only on fest circuit.
Setting is kept deliberately marker-free, so despite Sinhalese dialogue, the unidentifiable locale can stand in for any frontier of a long drawn-out conflict. Still, given cast and country of origin, there’s no question that Jayasundara is ruminating on the effects of the decades long civil war that continues to plague his country.
Homeguard serviceman Anura (Mahendra Perera) does watch duty in a wind-swept, barren landscape, switching off with older, alcoholic Piyasiri (Hemasiri Liyanage). Both display a weariness born from years of lonely service in a cause too distant or abstract for them to believe in, or probably even remember.
Army men occasionally pass by, trying to dispel the lethargy with a bit of prankish behavior, but the stillness and sense of waiting is never broken.
Sharing Anura’s very basic home are his bored, sensual wife Lata (Nilupili Jayawardena), his maiden sister Soma (Kaushalya Fernando, so good in “Scent of the Lotus Pond”) and young girl Batti (Pumidika Sapurni Peiris), although whose child she is remains unclear. Each morning Soma is the first to get up, leaving the house and boarding a bus for work, although what she does (domestic work?) is likewise never revealed.
The inhabitants’ basic inertia is interrupted only by a deep sense of sexual frustration, which both Anura and Lata periodically relieve with emotionless quickies. Soma alone tries to maintain some sort of routine and discipline.
After wearying years trapped in the same state of exhausted tension, the adults have ceased questioning what life can be, although Soma still holds out hopes of leaving the area and finding a job as a teacher. Only Batti, with the level-headedness of a child, describes the almost matter-of-fact numb despair when she makes a statement about “If I grow up” rather than “When.”
Visual style is obviously Jasyasundara’s main interest, and content follows form down to the slow, spare camera movements. Pic is strongest in its opening, immediately setting out helmer’s interest in both circumscribed and unseen space, with a figure silhouetted against a dark early morning sky. His placement of Soma beyond a door as she performs her morning ablutions recalls the combination of genre and still life painting mastered by artists like Chardin. The undoubtedly talented Jayasundara gets into trouble, however, with his lack of subtlety as he shows close-ups of steel blades, an arm rising out of water, and spent cartridges.
Worth singling out for praise is helmer’s masterful use of off-screen sound, which uses noises from helicopters, or just wind, to enhance the overall oppressive atmosphere. Likewise, art director Rohan Samaradivakara’s basic structures set against the featureless landscape perfectly reflect the mood of a temporary despair made permanent.