Is he having a laugh?

I’m in a playful mood, so let’s have a little game, shall we? Ok, here is movie number one – see if you can guess the title. It’s about a filmmaker who lives in a country where a serial killer goes around and kills famous filmmakers. Our protagonist is upset because the killer hasn’t sought him out and tried to kill him because isn’t he an excellent filmmaker, too? He doesn’t have a death wish, but being almost killed would be a badge of honor.

You found the movie’s title? All right, here is movie number two: It’s about a man whose wife doesn’t love him anymore; his daughter talks more to her cellphone than to her dad, his mother might show the first signs of dementia, and even his mistress is on her way out. Besides, he has been barred from his work for more than a year. Something must be done about all this, but what?

The solution to both questions is Khook, a movie written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Mani Haghighi. The point of my game was to show you that it has aspects of both comedy and tragedy, and that’s not always an easy coupling. In Khook, it largely works because the main character Hasan, played by Hasan Majuni, is funny to look at with his frizzy hair, pot-belly and hard-rock t-shirt, but he has been banned from making movies for 15 months, while other filmmakers he deems less talented than himself are awarded prizes at ceremonies that he attends as a mere guest.

Plus we get a piece of Hasan’s mind when he imagines himself as a rockstar with a neon-lit tennis racket as a guitar. There are two or three imaginary sequences like that, somewhere between quirky Bollywood song-and-dance numbers and Moulin Rouge, and they light up the whole movie. There is certainly enough imagination for him to be one of the most inventive directors in Iran – if he could only work again. His mistress Shiva (played by Leila Hatami, whom you might know from Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation) confesses to him that one of the other directors (and so one of Hasan’s ‘enemies’) has offered her a role, and that she intends to take it. He feels betrayed. His family can no longer be proud of him since he can’t do any kind of feature work and has to resort to silly commercials.

And now that serial killer. Hasan faints at the morgue when he has to identify the body parts of one of his opponents, but he is convinced that even appearing in the killer’s crosshairs might lift the ban and revive his career. Hasan’s desperation is bigger than the movie lets on, and to his horror, he becomes a suspect himself later on, which brings him a notoriety he cannot have wished for. I have to confess that Mani Haghighi’s Modest Reception (2012) didn’t do much for me, mainly because I didn’t get what the movie tried to do, but Khook made me reconsider.

Khook is a movie of uneasy laughs despite its moments of slapstick, but there was a moment where I tried to imagine an Iranian audience. The fact that the main character is a filmmaker banned from his work cannot be without its risks, and the allegory that a killer in a pig’s mask picks off directors is not lost on the Iranian authorities. I don’t know how many movies in Iran are comedies, but there cannot be that many. I cannot be sure about it, but there is a lot in this movie that would never get past the censors in a country like Saudi Arabia. Consider, for instance, the commercial directed by Hasan in which many actresses, all dressed in orange, stand behind one another and move their arms in such a way that it is very hard not to think about Hinduism. References to other religions might sweep past any censorship if it is all presented as a comedy, like here, and not with too big a hint at realism. But again: I have no way of knowing that. I wonder how Khook plays to an Iranian audience.

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