No escape from Istanbul

Siren’s Call (Son Çıkış), the newest film from director Ramin Matin (The Monsters’ Dinner and The Impeccables), has just been released following its premiere at the Tokyo Film Festival. This black comedy is about an architect who decides to leave Istanbul on a whim, but because of a series of mishaps as well as his own mistakes, he is unable to get out of the city.

Luis Buñuel’s absurdist film, El Angel Exterminador (The Exterminating Angel, 1962), is about a group of wealthy dinner guests who cannot leave the house due to some unseen barrier. The master of surrealism employs a force that appears out of nowhere and makes it impossible for any rescuers to enter the house, reinforcing Buñuel’s critique of the bourgeoisie.

Similarly, Siren’s Call is a critique of Istanbul’s new bourgeoisie, who has covered the city in concrete. Today’s Istanbul is a maze of construction sites, pollution, traffic, and the erosion of values. Where most of us were once kind and patient, we have become rude, insensitive, and aggressive from living constantly among the crowds.

In Emin Alper’s film Abluka (Frenzy), there is Buñuellian symbolism and isolation. It’s not a film about urbanization and Istanbul, but a reflection of the political climate through a morbid mind. The people who live in Istanbul are the exterminating angel, and Siren’s Call cannot rise above this truth.

Siren’s Call is a nightmare lived in broad daylight. It is a comedy with a succession of simple, everyday events that pave the way for disaster. The Los Angeles circumstances that caused Michael Douglas’ character in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993) to go insane are similar to the Istanbul of Siren’s Call—travelling from place to place and communicating with other people are not simple tasks in these cities.

Someday soon, the conditions in Istanbul will likely be ripe for a darker film like Falling Down, because Siren’s Call is not yet that movie.

Burned-out architect Tahsin (Deniz Cellioğlu) spends his days at high-rise apartment building sites, in traffic, and on the phone. One night, he meets his close friend Elif (Pınar Töre) at a bar. The young woman (Ezgi Çelik) with Elif is Tahsin’s old friend Siren, who is charming with her dreadlocks, piercings, and interesting accessories.

Siren used to have such a crush on Tahsin that she could not even look him in the eye. She now lives on a communal farm near the Aegean, and she’s visiting Istanbul to sell her organic products. The depressed Tahsin distracts himself by flirting with her. While viewers will notice how it is a bad omen that her name is Siren, Tahsin does not.

Tahsin is a name that means admiration or beautification. While this Tahsin is in no way exemplary of these qualities in terms of his professional or emotional life, he is not a victim either. He is just one of the many people taking advantage of urban renewal. Were the high-rise building sites in today’s Turkey inevitable? Should one of the last remaining villages in the Aegean have luxury villas or boutique mountain hotels?

When Tahsin’s wife Alev (Gizem Erdem) calls him on the phone, his “cawing” at her makes it clear that their relationship is already dead. Still, this “cawing” is a detail of Tahsin’s character, or, more precisely, his lack of character.

Few Istanbullus don’t dream of leaving the city and having a peaceful life in a natural place, or at least passing the summer months on the seaside or in a green sanctuary. Many places have been built that are similar to the farm Siren talks about. Tahsin, hungover and hoping to delight in Siren but without any self-criticism for the work he does, suddenly burns his bridges and turns in his company car, telephone, and credit card.

In the resignation scene at the beginning of the film—rushed and lacking impact—we learn right away whether or not Tahsin is a success story. When Tahsin crashes a meeting to hand over his resignation letter like a hero from an old Turkish melodrama, we learn that he works for his father-in-law’s company when he addresses his boss as “Dad.” It is clear that Tahsin has never taken the reins of his own life.

Tahsin is forced to walk around in different neighbourhoods and ride taxis, minibuses, and the metrobus while dragging his suitcase around. The day he has chosen to escape the city is the same day a Qatari delegation has come to visit, so traffic is an absolute mess. In a neighbourhood that rose up from one of his building developments, he runs away from people who know he is an outsider, and he cannot get to the airport by any means. It is not time that repeats itself, but situations, which gives the film echoes of the Bill Murray classic Groundhog Day.

Siren’s Call is untraditional, much of it filmed in suburban neighbourhoods with bazaars, coffeehouses, and barbershops.

Istanbul has for centuries created new environments by erecting skyscrapers on top of ruins. Reha Erdem’s Oh Moon (A Ay), Kutluğ Ataman’s The Serpent’s Tail (Karanlık Sular), and Ferzan Özpetek’s Steam: The Turkish Bath (Hamam) all create a nostalgic version of Istanbul by not bringing any modernity into the scenes.

Ramin Matin goes in another direction, filling every frame with a little steel and glass and a lot of concrete and cars. His Istanbul comes to life with very little beauty.

While the characters in Siren’s Call are rather shallow, it’s noteworthy that the film does not contain a single good or innocent character -- everybody is flawed. In addition, the film’s observations and discoveries are superb. Tahsin meeting Ayşe Nil Şamlıoğlu’s eccentric character is a scene that is beautifully designed and wonderfully performed. The film’s treatment of Turkey’s toxic masculinity, in a scene on a metrobus, is pitch-perfect, and points toward coffeehouses as the source of this sociological phenomenon.

Siren’s Call has a boldness, not holding back on criticizing various lifestyles. Matin draws attention to the fact that even rebels eventually conform and become part of the mainstream. How many millions of us could live on a commune on the Aegean coast or start an organic farm and do yoga?

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