Film Review – Mustang (2015)
Mustang (2015) takes on the ignorance of old beliefs about women in a direct but not always engaging manner by showing the small-mindedness of small town life and an inherent bias toward women’s roles. Five sisters in a small town in Turkey get out of school and decide to go to the beach and play in the water. They are all fully dressed, simply splashing and climbing on the boys’ shoulders and pushing each other before walking home through some gardens. When they get home their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) is outraged by their behavior, spanking them and basically calling them whores for “riding the boys.” Their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is even more angry and claims that Grandmother has been not taking them in hand so they are held prisoner in their house, put in more traditional clothing, and taught to cook and clean in preparation for becoming wives.
In an interesting way of letting us see what is happening we get most of our perspective from the youngest child Lala (Günes Sensoy), who cannot be older than nine but is the one most outspoken about what is happening and deals with things the best. She still plays with her sisters, especially the second youngest, jumping into blankets, and playing with her ball as she tries to watch soccer on TV. She does most of the chores without complaint and even has fun making bubble gum. Yet she also is the one who tries to get her sisters to rebel. Although she is never really a problem child she sees clearly that being treated this way is wrong. When the plans for the girls’ marriages become more intense and one is obviously upset, Lala tells her to run away but her older sister is uncertain as to where and how. This young actress is the heart of the film and that she is able to carry so much weight as the moral center is a great credit to her ability.
This movie is methodical about how it tells its story, creating a sense of how trapped these girls feel but becoming a slow viewing experience. We see how the girls adapt with one even being excited about getting married but only if it is to a boy she likes. The others sink into different kinds of depression or try to have fun the best they can. Yet so much of the film is the girls looking bored or Lala watching her grandmother create more ways to keep the girls in the house so she can teach them more housekeeping duties. The film has to keep its balance in this repetition, and seeing the added measures to keep these girls in line creates a sense of the boredom and of the imprisoned life they now endure, but at times it also results in a boring experience for us, the audience.
One other issue that bugged me story-wise is that at the core the film was about religious and cultural beliefs being forced on these girls yet halfway through the film a new horror not connected to those beliefs is added, creating an intensity that was not only unneeded but actually undermined the film’s focus. The paternal figures oppressing them seriously believed what they were doing was right. The new issue was clearly wrong and everyone knows it but it was ignored and just made the paternal figures seem clearly evil. The ambiguity of the fight then became less intriguing. In either case the young sisters were right but the battle changed. What helped a lot was in the tension and satisfaction that comes from the ending of the film as we see what Lala decides to do in rebelling against what is happening to them. The scene builds and keeps building and, while you can guess the results, the momentum building keeps you in the moment so much that you do not care.
Here is a film whose message is something to be admired and it does do a fine job of giving a face to this kind of cultural and religious oppression. We get to hear people says things that to many of us are so insane that we cannot believe that anyone can still believe this, especially with this level of intensity. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has issues structurally at times getting across his story but when it comes to creating the mood and a sense of oppression there is no problem.