Film Review: Although Slow-moving, ‘A Tale of Three Sisters’ is an Atmospheric, Gorgeous Look into Turkish Rural and Cultural Life
A stagnant and gloomy village in the 1980s. Reyhan, Nurhan, and Havva, three sisters were sent to town as ‘besleme’ (foster child and maid). Since they fail their foster parents for different reasons, they are sent back to their father’s house in their poor village. Deprived of their dreams of a better life, they try to hold on to each other.
Director: Emin Alper
Cast: Cemre Ebuzziya, Ece Yuksel, Helin Kandemir, Kayhan Acikgoz, Mufit Kayacan
Runtime: 108 minutes
A Tale of Three Sisters is only Emin Alper’s third feature-length film, but he has already established himself as a gifted filmmaker and storyteller with keen insight into the human condition and deft control over the film’s atmosphere. Here is a story told with heartfelt empathy, that beckons its viewers to watch on and witness how it unfolds towards its tragic end.
Set in the isolated and rustic village in Central Anatolia, A Tale of Three Sisters begins with the return of Havva (Helin Kandemir) to the village, where her father, Sevket (Mufit Kayacan), and her oldest sister, Reyhan (Cemre Ebuzziya), awaits. She is in tears, and it’s not until later we find out why amidst conversations. Shortly after, Nurhan (Ece Yuksel), the middle sister, returns to the village as well.
Central to the film is the Turkish besleme tradition, whereby young Turkish girls who live in poor, remote villages are sent to be fostered by a richer family. In turn, the fostered girls have to take care of the foster family like a servant. The allure to stay with a better-off family is undeniable.
But Havva, Nurhan, and in the past Reyhan, lost their chances due to various reasons. For Havva, her foster-brother died. Nurhan squandered away her chance when she mistreated and neglected her foster family. And for Reyhan, she accidentally got pregnant with a stranger, and was sent back to the village out of shame.
With the three sisters reunited, you would expect them to be happy. Instead, they feel miserable from being cooped up in the dilapidated village. And because of how stubborn and firm all of them are, they often get into fights with one another. Nurhan is especially snide with Reyhan, hurling insults at Reyhan’s marriage and her illegitimate child. Havva is keen on usurping Nurhan’s foster family, eager to escape the village.
Alper clearly isn’t afraid of creating unlikable characters who act selfishly. But their selfishness is not without good reason. After all, who doesn’t want to escape the poor living conditions of the village and the harsh and unrelenting environment? This is a village far removed from urban facilities like hospitals, and is easily threatened by its environs, such as a heavy snowfall that isolates it further.
And perhaps what is most striking about this film is Alper’s and cinematographer Emre Erkmen’s reverent attention to the enigma and beauty of nature. When nighttime falls, a sinister atmosphere soaks the film and smothers the characters. Conversations take place in hauntingly atmospheric locations, such as the top of a hill while a campfire crackles in front of the characters. There are even supernatural elements that lurk and spook the characters, such as when a random miner hears a suspicious sound in an empty mine, and the camera zooms into the dark, echoey tunnel.
Indeed, for what feels like a slow, plodding story, almost every moment is pulsating with apprehension at something terrible waiting to happen. Dialogue between the characters might feel a bit stiff and expository at times, but it is the main driving force of the story. Silences are just as full of life, at times spiked with dissatisfaction, at times sentient with the sound of nature.
Of course, not everything in the film feels oppressive. Be prepared for sweeping views of the Turkish mountains and green plains, capturing how resplendent the light is as it falls on the village during daytime. Besides quarrelling, the three sisters occasionally pour their hearts to one another, giggling over spilt secrets and talks about sexual intimacy. A village woman loves to do somersaults on the pebbly ground and the grassy knolls while the soundtrack plays upbeat instrumental music.
A Tale of Three Sisters can be slow and unengaging at times, but don’t let that deter you from watching this exquisitely crafted film. With hypnotizingly beautiful visuals, and with characters that are eclectic in personalities, the film undoubtedly deserved its nomination for the Golden Berlin Bear prize at the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.
A Tale of Three Sisters is part of the lineup for the 2021 edition of Middle East Film Festival. The festival celebrates the best of cinema from the region with six critically-acclaimed films. These will be screened online in Singapore for the first time from 19 February to 3 March 2021 on streaming platform KinoLounge. Find out more about the festival here.