If you’re interested in expanding your horizons beyond normal English-language film and TV, it’s not a bad idea to take a look at Turkish cinema, which has a long, rich history and steadily increasing popularity. And where better to start than with Paper Lives? Recently added to Netflix, this film by Can Ulkay has everything you could hope for: constant and impossibly escalatory melodrama, rich insights into modern-day Istanbul, and some charming, often stunning acting. It’s a movie with soul, and charisma enough to paper over the cracks (pun intended) in its plot and production value.
It also happens to be certifiably bonkers in its final act. If you like twist endings, this one’s a classic.
Oliver Twist in Istanbul
In the poorest areas of Istanbul, Mehmet (Çagatay Ulusoy) helps run a crew who collect and sell wastepaper. The gang are all the lowest of society; they’re near-homeless, vulnerable and desperately impoverished. Mehmet finds a stowaway little boy called Ali (Emir Ali Dogrul) in his warehouse, who, abused and abandoned, is taken in by Mehmet. Make no mistake though, this isn’t a happy retelling of Oliver Twist. In Istanbul’s poorest neighbourhoods, the kids beg for just enough money to sniff glue, rival waste collectors are murderous, and basic healthcare is a wild financial ambition. The depiction of wealth inequality and desperation in Turkey is remorselessly cutting. Mehmet’s crew is primarily composed of kids and teens abandoned by their families– during a celebration, one boy reveals that he wants to die young, so that his mother might still recognise his body. It’s a cruel world that, to his credit, director Ulkay doesn’t shy away from. Of course, Mehmet himself was abandoned as a child, a plot point that forms the beating heart of this story.
Two Men and a Baby
Mehmet takes in little Ali with the help of Gonzi, his sceptical pal at the warehouse. Ali’s been beaten and abused, but the two gradually bond and Mehmet begins to treat the sweet little kid like a son. It’s in their relationship that Paper Lives gets interesting. Mehmet is pretty dull otherwise, and despite the actor’s charms, he simply comes across as nice, likeable and supportive of his crew. But with Ali around, his stability begins to falter, and he obsesses over providing his adopted son with the love and nurture that both have been denied for so long. His gradual mental decline, in congress with his ailing physical health, is subtle, and acted expertly by Çagatay Ulusoy, as his delusions about his own relationship with his parents manifest themselves. But child actors particularly can make or break a production, and Emir Ali Dogrul is outright perfect here. He’s adorable, vulnerable, and heart-wrenchingly damaged, and his budding relationship with Mehmet charms the pants off the audience. The two of them sell this film better than anything else, as the plot itself veers off into lunacy and the relentless melodrama becomes nauseating.
A Plot Twist Classic
Paper Lives is treading a fine line for much of its runtime. The characterisation is fascinating, the setting is vibrant and insightful, but it’s lacking in places. The melodrama is too much. The narrative isn’t all there. The fight choreography and production quality feel clumsy and unreal. But this sense of finely balanced surrealism is propelled into the stratosphere with the final fifteen minutes, in which a plot twist turns the entire film on its head. It wasn’t totally unpredictable, but still felt like an absolute gut punch. The issue is that while cataclysmic, it doesn’t really advance or hinder the themes of the film. It almost feels superfluous, but Paper Lives delivers this shock with just – just – enough pathos to feel deserved, as well as confirm its own sense of total narrative lunacy and fierce charisma in the face of its shortcomings. It’s a niche pick, but this film comes strongly recommended.
Image: Adadaxe via Wikimedia Commons