A multi-layered film that transposes traditional Turkish family values onto an Austrian setting, Kuma (2012) is a well-crafted portrait of a culture alien to our own. For this reason, the twists woven into its script only seem to have greater impact than they otherwise would if we were able to follow exactly what was happening.
Umut Dag directs this debut feature; a fitting one considering his own Austrian-Kurdish origins. He manages to draw impressive performances from a predominantly inexperienced cast – Nihal G Koldas, an apparent theatre veteran, being the main exception in her role as family figurehead Fatma. This position soon comes under unexpected threat from Ayse, a young woman who has been drafted in as a second wife (a ‘kuma’, in other words) for Fatma’s husband, due to Fatma’s ill health.
This perhaps would have been a decent set-up for an interesting story in itself, but the script continues to throw further surprises our way at an almost relentless rate throughout the movie. Ayse’s marriage, for example, is passed off as a marriage to the family’s handsome son, Hasan, to cover for the fact that all Fatma really wants is a surrogate mother for her children should she pass away. Ironically Ayse then starts to genuinely fall for Hasan – whose subsequent disinterest reveals another hidden level to this unusual family unit. Another surprising twist around the mid-way point then sets the disjointed group up for an inevitable collision later on, although you may not appreciate it fully if you struggle to keep up with proceedings.
The fact that some characters regularly switch between German and their native Turkish certainly doesn’t help assuage our confusion. This does, however, serve an important plot function as the two older sisters of the family use it to mistreat Ayse, whom they clearly disapprove of but feel unable to direct their resentment towards a domineering mother. On a deeper level this also delves into an undercurrent of cultural tensions at the films core.
Ayse herself is played by Begum Akkaya. In only her second feature role, Akkaya gives a scintillating performance throughout the film, as an innocent young woman who shows both a warming maternal side and a youthful naivety in her approach to romantic relationships – for which one can hardly blame her upon observing the full extent of the situation she has been unwillingly placed in.
Overall, Kuma is a film from which you’re likely to leave questioning whether you really knew what was going on. It has that effect right up until its slightly haunting final scene, and there are one or two hints that this was, in the end, entirely intentional. Naturally it won’t appeal to everyone, and especially not to those traditionalists for whom the film may be hitting too close to home. But I think we all need to see one like that from time to time, if only to remind us how truly flawed humanity can be.
9 / 10