Wednesday 6 November 2019

We Don't Go Back #91: Folk Horror at Fractured Visions

I was lucky enough to have an invite to once again represent Miskatonic Institute at the Fractured Visions Festival in Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff this October and got the chance to stick around for a couple of the day's showings. I was glad of that, it provided a decent folk horror double bill, with one film I'd been looking forward to seeing for a while and one I'd never heard of, and it made for an enjoyable few hours' viewing. On to Tumbbad and Hanna's Homecoming, then, two films that had little in common save their venue.

Tumbbad (2018)

I am not an expert on India. I have been there once, fifteen years ago. I stayed on a locally run development project in the Uttar Pradesh for a month, and frankly I made a right pratt of myself. But there were experiences I had in that time that stuck with me. I had certainties about the world and my place in it shaken. It was utterly terrifying, profoundly humbling, and that's OK because if there's something white people need, it's to be humbled a bit.

For all the colour and variety of a country the size of India, Rahi Anil Barve's Tumbbad reminded me in a lot of ways of the India I visited all those years ago: inequity, poverty and wealth close together, the lasting scars of British colonisation, the stunning countryside, and people, people being people in their own culture, and all the good and bad that comes from that. And although Tumbbad is fantastical, its fantastical elements are tied firmly to a time and a place, a real world, a real context.

It begins with a stylised account of an obscure heresy. We hear a father's voice explaining this to a son, although it's not until the very end of the film that we see the context of the conversation. The mother goddess gives birth to a vast population of gods, 16 crore in fact (or in Western money, 1.6 billion). One, Hastar, is avaricious and brutal and is cast out. The mother restores the hungry, greedy god-child to her womb, where he is suffered to exist on condition that no living human ever venerates him. But in the central Indian village of Tumbbad, a Brahmin family breaks this law, and is forever cursed.

The only inhabitants of Tumbbad we will meet are the members of this family, in a generational story divided into three chapters spread out over about thirty years, set in the years leading to Partition. It is centred around young Vinayak Rao (Dhundiraj Prabhakar Jogalekar as a boy, Sohum Shah as an adult). It always seems to be raining in Tumbbad, and the Rao family is frankly dysfunctional. It is the job of Vinayak's mother, a woman with the shaved head and red robes of a Brahmin widow (Jyoti Malshe) to both tend to the lecherous old Sarkaar (Madhav Hari Joshi) and to keep a monstrous, flesh eating and immortal grandmother (Piyush Kaushik) fed and sleeping. The grandmother, it is made clear, has been cursed by the demon god of Tumbbad (how, we'll find later). One of the particulars of the curse is that by uttering the phrase "sleep, or Hastar will come for you," you can send Hastar's cannibal victims to sleep.

Vinayak and his little brother Sadashiv (Rudra Sona) are intensely curious as to the source of the Sarkaar's riches. Tragedy piles upon the widow and, taken to the city of Pune, young Vinayak is forced to promise that he will never go back.

It's not really a spoiler to tell you that as a greedy, ruthless and spectacularly moustachioed young man, he will return.

Tumbbad is framed, in its cleanly separated three chapters, as a succession of hermeneutic questions: what happened to grandmother to make her like that? Where is the Sarkaar's treasure? Where is Vinayak getting the coins from? Why does he only bring back a handful of coins at a time? Each time one is resolved, another arises.

Vinayak's means of gaining the money is straight out of folk tale (although the story of Hastar, a god who no one except the Rao family knows about, is necessarily an artifact of fiction, a folkloric retcon if you like) and each chapter of the film explores the consequences of greed, but makes a point of being in its time and place.

The seedy, venal opium dealer Raghav (Deepak Damle), is beholden to a typically corrupt English sahib (Cameron Anderson, who does not supply, and let's be kind, the best performance in the film), and the promise of criminal wealth contingent on an investment drives him to his fate as he tries to work out where the gold is. In the third part, set pointedly in 1947, the realisation that the ruins of Tumbbad are to be seized by the newly independent government drives an urgent and in retrospect foolish attempt to get as much treasure out as possible in one last try.
Justice in Tumbbad is poetic, and a sort of redemption is found in a final repudiation of greed, but its time and place, the dynamics of wealth, are vital. Of course the Raos are Brahmins, because they're going to be the ones who would be entitled enough to ignore the injunction of the gods and consider themselves entitled to a stolen treasure (Indian writing talks in terms of "Brahminical supremacy" in more or less exactly the same way that Western writers might describe "white supremacy" in fact). Vinayak is the sort of guy who assumes he's got a right to his decaying ancestral pile, and the gold, and by extension India, since he is at the top of the caste pile – at one point, we see him sit at a table with a couple of guys who are planning the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who of course was, historically, murdered by a Brahmin nationalist from Pune, and I don't think it's an accident that the film begins with the Gandhi quote: "The world has enough for everyone's need, but not for everyone's greed."

That central connection, that sense of time and place that the film has gives it a real depth that it might not otherwise have and makes it a worthy folk horror, because the best folk horror is nothing if not in some way political. Tumbbad is a parable of what went wrong with India in that period, problems that echo into the present, and which parallel the problems that plague other nations too. It is a humane film, richly imagined and immensely enjoyable. It's let down a little by some slightly ropy CGI and as in the theatrical cut I saw, someone really should have proofread those subtitles, because Tumbbad really deserved a lot better than that (I don't know if the ones on Amazon Prime Video are better). If you can get to a screening or you've got Prime Video, where it's currently sitting as "included with Prime", you should see it.

Hanna's Homecoming (Wo kein Schatten fällt) (2018)

In Hanna's Homecoming (its original German title Wo kein Schatten fällt, is literally "Where no shadow falls"), Hanna (Valerie Stoll) is about sixteen. She's spent three years in a boarding school, and in summer break went to stay, pointedly, with her grandmother, and not with her widowed father. But gran has had to go into a home and so Hanna has to come back to the village, the farm.

Hardly anyone is pleased to see her. Her mother disappeared in the nearby Marsh, leaving nothing except an abandoned dress, at around the time that three local men lost their lives. Hanna's mother, we discover, was considered by the locals to be a witch. Hanna's dad Erik (Godehard Giese) kept her away, we learn, to protect her. And well he might. The assumption is that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Immediately suspicion falls on Hanna, from the moment she arrives. The farmhand Gunnar (Sebastian Hülk) and local mean girl Steffi (Alissa Wilms) lead independent campaigns against Hanna, and although things aren't helped by the ambivalent interest of the local boys – they believe the witch talk, but also really fancy her – things are helped even less by the fact that bad events follow Hanna around. A murdered dog, farm accidents, disappearances and haunting all begin to hound the girl, centring around visions of her lost mother and occult symbols and talismans left on the outskirts of the marsh and, later, around the farm itself. She keeps geetting nosebleeds and seeing things she doesn't want to in the mirror.
Hanna's situation is utterly nightmarish. Nothing works out for her, her father doesn't know how to the only two people really pleased to see her are her father's chief farmhand Lorentz (Sasha Alexander Gersak) and a girl named Eva (Milena Tscharntke) who, although confident and smart, is also an outsider and with whom Hanna conceives an intense friendship. Neither Lorentz nor Eva are without ulterior motives. Inevitably the motives of both are predatory and are at least on the most basic level sexual. Hanna's homoerotic relationship with Eva becomes one of the central axes of the film and it's through Eva that Hanna's final release comes.

Director Esther Bialas understands the misery of adolescent girlhood and the horror of teenage sexuality, and how easily these things can be perverted and exploited and ruined, and she uses the grammar of folk horror to express this. It's not a work of world-changing originality – more than one of its multiple twists hark back to better-known genre films – but it uses these twists and tropes as a well-stocked toolbox, designed to build a sturdy structure. And while the biggest criticism is that the film shows its hand a bit too soon, so that the final act of the film is wholly predictable, the ending works. Its mysteries are solved satisfactorily, without explaining too much, and its climax and denouement work towards the only really good ending the film could have. It feels complete, a welcome piece of European folk horror.