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Turkish comedy with shades of Murakami uses a lost cat to explore contemporary Turkish society — live from Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival!


Schrödinger’s cat might be rooted in ideas of quantum mechanics, but in popular culture it’s basically the idea of saying that something can’t be proven to either exist or not exist. In fact, it both exists and doesn’t exist at the same time! This conundrum is quizzically explored in Zuhal, where the film’s eponymous character (Nihal Yalçın) living in an apartment block is convinced that she can hear the meowing of a cat somewhere within its walls. The only problem is, no one else believes the cat even exists…

This is essentially a one-joke movie, thinly stretched out to feature length. Your mileage will vary on your love for cats and for the oddities of the film’s humour. Given that stray cats roam Istanbul with impunity — and are well beloved in Turkish culture — it’s no surprise that this type of story has emerged from the Eurasian nation. Elsewhere, Murakami, the patron saint of lost and mysterious cats, will be kicking himself he hasn’t written this first.

The cat can either be seen as a metaphor for Zuhal herself, who becomes increasingly more dogged (wink, wink) in her search for the mysterious feline, or as an excuse to explore the ins and outs of the unique apartment block. With rare exceptions, the vast majority of the film takes place within the building — covering block disputes, grating landlords, cabinets that can’t fit through walls, women who refuse to conform, and incredibly impetuous children. Credit must go to the production design, using simple photos, drawings, and furniture designs to give each individual room its own character.

At the centre is Nihal Yalçın, who comports herself and looks a little like Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, only without the severe breakdowns or asides to the camera, but still a fiercely independent woman and work-from-home lawyer who will stop at no end to make sure she uncovers the cat. Surrounded by a cast of self-absorbed, moody, obtuse neighbors, she is the both the sanest person around and the closest to a mental breakdown, Yalçın never quite giving us a true insight into how her character truly thinks.

To create a sense of semi-ironic distance, director Nazli Elif Durlu shoots medium-distance shots, often bifurcated by hallways and doors, with careful placing of furniture and characters. Shot on handheld, the frame is constantly moving, but only a little bit, making the viewer uneasy. While this type of idea could’ve got boring very quickly, this use of inventive framing and camerawork helps to keep things somewhat fresh.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t help but feel this would have been stronger and punchier as a short. At just under 90 minutes and the endlessly-explored basic premise needed to go somewhere else to be truly effective. But perhaps going elsewhere would ruin the joke. That said, I’m a dog person; maybe it’s all just a cat person thing.

Zuhal plays in the First Feature section of the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival, running from 12-28th November.

By Redmond Bacon - 26-11-2021

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