So my last choice somewhat failed on the “Asian” front, even though it was a really enjoyable film. This time I have a similar but more easily justified choice. This one is set in Iran (which is most definitely Asia), with Farsi as the spoken language. It was filmed in Jordan by an Iranian director (who now lives in the UK). So far, so good as far as my rules go – I may not have reviewed many films from this part of Asia, but it’s totally valid. However, when I tell you it was (unsuccessfully) nominated as the UK’s entry to this years Oscars as best foreign language film, the lines get a little blurry. If you follow the money? It’s a British movie. However, I think when you look at the film itself, it very much is exactly the sort of film I like to cover.. So without further ado, let’s see what it is about.
“Under the Shadow” is set in Tehran during the 1980’s Iran-Iraq War. Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is young married woman who is trying to restart her medical studies after her political agitation during the earlier revolution put a serious halt to her career path. Her struggles are further enhanced by the restrictions put upon her as a female by Sharia Law, and by her increasingly difficult relationship with her Doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), and her young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). In short? It’s hard to be a progressively minded female in this particular time and place. The story opens with Tehran coming under heavy attack from the Iraqi forces, which leads Iraj to being conscripted to the front line of the battle. Shideh is reticent to temporarily relocate herself and Dorsa to Iraj’s parents outside the city, partly out of stubbornness, and partly due her difficulties with submitting herself to the strict regime. Her one escape in life is an illegal Jane Fonda workout video (well, is it the 1980’s). One night a bomb falls on her apartment, and whilst it doesn’t explode, two things change. Firstly, it acts as the impetus for the other member of her apartment block to leave the city, leaving Shideh and Dorsa alone. Secondly, it seems that the bomb bought something else with it – A Djinn, that takes a particular interest in Dorsa. The young girl is herself very attached to a doll that her Father bought her, and when the doll goes missing, she refuses to leave. It seems this is the modus operandi of the Djinn – to steal the prized possession of an individual – and Shideh is now battling this otherworldly spirit for the life of her daughter.
“Under the Shadow” is a film in a similar vein to “Dark Water”. It’s a slow burner that has a supernatural conclusion, but is actually about so much more. It’s about the difficulties of living a life during wartime. It’s about the struggles of a woman touched by modernity but living under an archaic regime. It’s about the difficulties of being a woman who struggles to connect with her child. And for the first hour of the film it takes its time exploring these issues. Shideh is a complicated character, and whilst you will often feel sympathy for her and will her to succeed, she can also be fairly bull-headed and act in a way that doesn’t make the viewer entirely sympathetic to her. It is critical of the regime, but not in an overly preachy way.
For an hour the film plays out in a fairly realistic way, with only the ever increasingly odd behaviour of Dorsa suggesting any real supernatural involvement. In fact, in many ways the film works more like something akin to Polanski’s “Repulsion”, with the real issues of the world creating an oppressive prison for our central character. But in the last 20 minutes things get way more creepy, and I’ll be honest.. there are a couple of scares that made even a horror junkie like me who is usually fairly blasé about being scared jump and get seriously freaked out.
I’ve read a number of reviews from people who were non-plussed about the film, mostly because they found the pacing glacial and the eventual conflict of woman vs. blanket somewhat lacking. It’s fair criticism if you come at the movie expecting a full on shock-filled horror story. The thing is, “Under the Shadow” isn’t really a horror movie – it is way more than that. It is a really interesting movie that uses horror tropes to introduce you to a real world set of circumstances that are potentially more horrifying than anything the imagined supernatural could bring. Now, I did have a couple of issues. It’s actually a little short in it’s running time, and the ending could do with a little more expansion (it seriously ends rather abruptly). There’s a plot-line with a mute boy that could do with a little more explanation.
But these are me hunting for nit-picks. It’s a fantastic and Highly Recommended movie. It makes you think and exposes you to a world that many of us will never experience but is actually only to real sadly.