August 31, 2008
The Forsaken Land, 2005
The opening sequence of Vimukthi Jayasundara's The Forsaken Land suggests a metaphoric, alien landscape - a land transfigured by the buried scars of a decades-long civil war and the ominous disquiet of a fragile, uncertain peace. A lone militia guard, Anura (Mahendra Perera) patrolling the main road to a remote village, passes his idle hours inspecting the contours of an open field, looking for irregular patches in the topography (perhaps indicating the presence of unmarked, makeshift graves). A disembodied arm juts out from the undulating water, articulated in rigor resembling a prehistoric sea monster surfacing from the lake. The harsh white light from a fluorescent bulb illuminates a dark room, its intensity reflected in the crosscut to a shot of the human eye. A restless woman, Anura's unmarried sister Soma (Kaushalaya Fernando) rises at dawn to bathe using water ported into a barrel in the absence of indoor plumbing, and hears the sound of a tank rolling into a nearby open field to conduct military exercises. In a way, the images capture the desolation of a people existing in a state of suspended animation, harboring the persistent memory of a violent, unreconciled past, and relegated to a life as impotent spectators to the meaningless rituals of everyday life in the isolated village. On the surface, The Forsaken Land suggests Shohei Imamura's Ballad of Narayama in its stark and austere portrait of an inhuman, godless society, where the tainted landscape reflects the nihilism and moral vacuum of disintegrated lives lived in perpetual stasis (as suggested in an episode involving a pregnant villager's apparent suicide by poison ingestion). However, in its abstract naturalism and implicit allusion to the social repercussions of ethnic marginalization, the film also converges towards Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours, where the forest represents a place of menace (the schoolgirl, Batti's [Pumudika Sapurni Peiris] encounter with the night guard, Piyasiri [Hemasiri Liyanage]) and transitory escape (Anura and a soldier's retreat into a trench to smoke). It is within this context of protracted ethnic conflict and disenfranchisement that Piyasiri's recounted children's tale - about an impoverished woman called "Little Bird" who once set out with a cup of rice as dowry to faraway lands in order to find a husband, only to be killed by her prospective husband after a perceived slight and humiliation - may be seen as an allegory for the civil war itself: a marginalized people who has razed its own home in order to assuage its guilt and insecurity, eternally condemned to a karmic cycle of self-inflicted retaliation as victim and transgressor.