Synopsis: A blacklisted Iranian director is alarmed when several filmmakers are murdered around the country. He’s alarmed not only because of the murders – but also because he is not being targeted at a time when many of his colleagues were beheaded by the same murderer.
If there is one thing in which KHOOK (PIG) stands out among all other Berlinale competition titles, it’s that it will truly puzzle its viewers as to how to properly judge it and perhaps even how feel to about it. The best description could perhaps be summed up in that it is essentially two films in one and represents an interesting case for when a film is at odds with itself. If this was directed by two filmmakers, one could guess there was some sort of behind-the-scenes drama that led to completely opposite takes on how to tell this particularly intriguing story. But while the film features one director, Mani Haghighi, the tone, style and story goes back and forth in two very distinct directions. It is exciting at first, then puzzling and somehow jarring, and finally perplexing.
The film opens with blacklisted director Hasan (Hasan Majuni) who is not able to receive a permit to shoot his next film. The actress Hasan has helped make her way to stardom (Shiva, played by Leila Hatami) is about to work with one of his rival directors. Increasingly, his career is on the brink of collapse, his voice muffled by censorship and his artistic dreams becoming further and more impossible to achieve. His personal life is collapsing too – and in the middle of all his personal traumas, a serial killer is on a killing spree, assassinating several filmmakers around town. Filled with rage and struggling to get his mojo back in the industry, Hasan wonders why the serial killer never targeted him. Is he targeting better, more successful directors? Is this another sign of how he is, once again, fading away from all spotlights and falling off all radars, including the killer’s? Meanwhile, he is accused to be behind the murders and the issue goes viral on social media.
Early on, the film features very original and unorthodox scenes rarely seen in Iranian cinema – scenes that are outrageous, occasionally funny, sometimes bizarre and not always justified. After the film hits some right early notes, it quickly becomes somehow contrived. It’s as if it is trying too hard to be Iran’s THE SQUARE or BIRDMAN – both sharp satires that worked largely because their directors were in full command of the tone. And here is where the film feels like two in one: a comedy that wants to sharply comment on an artist’s ego, vanity and insecurity, and a drama that wants to depict how cruel the age of social media has become – one that lures people to derive validation from likes, retweets and follower numbers.
The film’s main theme is marvelous and worth watching – but it’s the execution that it falters in. How can artists find relevance in a world that has become a social media jungle in which people hunt for validation, popularity and woke judgements? Haghighi addresses the issue effectively but forcing several comedic scenes in ways that looked and felt alien to Iranian cinema dragged down the film’s rhythm and ultimate impact. Perhaps wanting to take big risks and introduce completely novel approaches rarely employed in Iranian cinema, he gives his film a zany energy that unfortunately doesn’t register in several places and jumps back and forth between being unwarranted and entertaining with a few smiles.
In the film’s final minutes, one could feel this could have become a truly fascinating project if it was dealt with entirely dramatically, an area that Iranian cinema is known to excel in, to ground its themes in the realism that was very essential to the story. That’s not to say the film should have been entirely safe or predictable, but given how the comedy derails the story rather than boost it, there was a much powerful, coherent and focused version of this film that we will probably never see.
Verdict: PIG is an interesting and atypical, though contrived and forced, experiment in adding new tones and bringing new approaches to modern Iranian cinema. Its themes are fascinating to watch but the execution questionably makes it something it is not intended to be: a forced dramedy that loses its way.