Netflix’s new Turkish film Ashes is one of those enticing films that know we have a child inside of us that’s always willing to come on a journey where some kind of magic is involved. The film, directed by Erdem Tepegöz, stars Funda Eryigit, Alperen Duymaz, and Mehmet Günsür in major roles. Apart from how gorgeous everybody looks in this film, there is nothing else to connect to concepts like beauty and allure in this erotic thriller, or more bluntly, a sluggish drama in the garb of an erotic thriller.
The movie begins by showing us the life of Gokce, an elegant woman who is married to the owner of a renowned publishing company. They receive a manuscript from an unknown writer, and Gokce takes a liking to it. It’s tilted ‘Ashes,’ which is where the title of the movie comes from. As an audience, we now know that everything hinges on this story that Gokce is reading. This story takes her on a journey where she starts looking for a man who is simply named M in her real life, for the story gives clues that it’s based on true events. Gokce treads the path of fantasy, and soon the lines between reality and fiction get blurred, with deadly consequences.
The exposition of the film is deliberate and seems carefully planned, as the composition of each shot lends it a striking clarity, as if the film is trying to separate itself from other kitschy erotic thrillers. Ashes also has an enchanted feel to it, and that does not mean it’s made for children, but for the child inside every adult. Gokce and her husband Kenen seem ripped out of a pulpy novel—you know, the uber-rich and suave power couple—but the filmmaking makes us feel that it will get to exploring them later, for it is so engrossed in getting this exposition right. It doesn’t manage to do that. The story Gokce reads does begin to seem other-worldly, and the character of M is quite fascinating.
The problem here is that the exposition gets us ready for a real man based on a fictional character, and reality does not meet the standard set by the fiction. When does it ever? The enchanted nature evaporates, and now we are in the generic erotic thriller space, whose beats are so well known that the film almost starts to parody itself. The plot points become phenomenally predictable, and a sense of hopelessness settles in—that the film won’t be exploring any characters any further. It had no plans to do so. If one was waiting for the ‘the elegant woman getting frisky with her sex life’ part, it comes, and there are no surprises anywhere.
The film is like one of the dreams Adrian Lyne, the director of films like “Unfaithful” and the recent film “Deep Water,” might have dreamt up after taking a sedative. There is a calm rhythm to Ashes, which one generally does not see in movies of this genre. Even when the drama of the story grips Gokce as she moves closer to figuring out who M is, the camera movements retain their swift, sweeping movements as if we are in a romance novel. I will add that it’s not overdone, and it’s through the score that the film tries to bring back the tension, as if to remind us that Gokce is walking into danger. Perhaps the whole idea was to undercut the romance with the sharp edges of the erotic thriller, but the film remains in two boats, managing to drown in the end. I wouldn’t have been thrown off if this had been an avant-garde film with a bit of magical realism thrown in. That way, it could have baffled the audience if not engrossed them. Ultimately, it stays lukewarm throughout, and it is in the end that it sheds all modesty and starts to behave as if it’s copying an American TV show, where you know there is an easily digestible resolution coming after the end of the episode.
The performances are as good as they could have been given the writing. There is an effort by each and every performer to bring out the depth of each character. In a scene, Gokce tries to bury her nails in M, but it’s to show her heartbreak, it seems. The time taken on that shot interested me, as it went for a bit too long, as if to suggest there was some deeper subtext that I didn’t get. General audiences, I think, can be swayed by a good ending. Even if the film has weak exposition or lags somewhere in the middle, it’s traditional movie wisdom that a great ending can make them forget everything. Ashes believes in the polar opposite. Its ending makes everything so banal and meaningless that the whole experience of watching Gokce’s journey revolts against the body, and the brain asks to travel back in time to the moment when one had not seen the ending.
Ashes has a simplistic story on its hands. The screenplay by Erdi Isik is not in any way designed to unfold the story in a novel way. Yes, for a brief moment, the film promises that we will discover something about the recesses of the feminine mind, but the rabbit is not in the hat. It is out there right in front of us, and we are then asked to appreciate the magic trick. There is a story in Gokce’s life foreshadowing the ending of the film, something to do with a man who was so obsessed with Anna Karenina that he went to Russia because he believed she was real and still alive. Gokce goes on to M in a similar fashion. There is no acceptance of the fact that this is a simple story and that it had to be elevated by the exploration of characters, which is not possible when one is trying to follow genre conventions so religiously. The only good thing I found about Ashes is that Turkey seems nice with all the gorgeous locations and the sunlight. It made me nostalgic for some reason, even though I’ve never been to Turkey. If the film managed to make me have this thought, it generally means it had lost me a long time before.