The fragility of the male ego is exposed in Khook (Pig), an Iranian film-world satire that is as kooky as the title suggests. It concerns a black-listed film director (Hassan Majooni) with severe anger issues, who flies into a rage when he finds out that his muse wants to start working with another director. These concerns are overshadowed, however, once the severed heads of famous Iranian directors start popping up all over the place. Resigned from movie-making and instead working on soulless commercials, he patiently awaits his own day of reckoning. But when this doesn’t seem like it’s coming, he starts to get anxious; does this mean he is no longer an important filmmaker? The resulting movie deconstructs the ego of the modern male film director through a pitch-black comic lens. While not reaching the metafictional heights promised by its smart premise, Khook remains a very funny depiction of a society both literally and metaphorically losing its head.
While the stereotypical image of Iranian cinema is usually represented by the lacerating dramas of Farhadi or the art-puzzles of Kiarostami, the movies of Mani Haghighi are a complete world apart. A fan of absurdism, slapstick comedy, and metafiction, his films depict a totally different Iran to the one portrayed in the media. It shows that for a supposedly authoritarian state, exciting art is still being made that both instructs and beguiles. Khook continues Haghaghi’s penchant for the bizarre, melding dream sequences, music video interludes, and film parodies into a true kitchen-sink vision. This is complemented by the bright and diverse cinematography, employing a range of different colours to make this comic-thriller pop out of the screen. This approach may not be for everyone, and at times drags the narrative down when it should be ramping up the tension, but it gives this tale a unique visual sheen that lingers long in the mind.
The themes of Khook seem like a mirror of the real world. Hassan’s blacklisting brings to mind directors such as Jafar Panahi, who have been prevented by the state from working anymore. The idea of filmmakers being branded pigs and having their heads chopped off — with the obvious radical Islamist connotations — feels like a metaphor for the way artists have been treated by the authoritarian Iranian government. But the overall themes extend far outside of Iran too, taking on topics as diverse as “trial by social media,” the role of the muse, and the so-called untouchability of the male auteur. Haghighi is probing the hypocrisy of society-at-large here, taking no prisoners in where he puts his cynical eye.
It works well as a satirical comedy due to the way its plot dovetails nicely with its themes. While the visual sequences may be the ones that stick out in consideration for the Golden Bear, it is through the whip-smart, dark dialogue that the film really thrives. This is mostly down to Hassan Majooni’s excellent main performance. With a wild and grizzled look, he easily embodies a rage-filled auteur who is unable to look beyond himself. A true egoist, he somehow makes every conversation circle back on himself. The surrounding characters are mostly archetypes, surrounding the director and making constant demands on him. Perhaps the real star of the show is Mina Jafarzadeh as his mother, a woman who reassures her son that, of course, the killer will come for him; he’s just being saved for last.
What makes Khook so satisfying is that it follows through on its own premise in a way that still manages to surprise. The most important thing in a movie like this is nailing the landing, and contained here is one that feels both inevitable and extremely cynical. With so much going on, however, the potency of its central theme is somewhat lost. It could’ve benefited from more streamlining; with a tighter narrative, the one-two punch of the conclusion would’ve been much more powerful. Despite these slight reservations, Khook remains a fine combination between the personal and the political. In his dark portrait of modern Iran, Haghighi has created a comedy that leaves a lot to contemplate long after the lights have come up.
The 68th annual Berlin International Film Festival is scheduled to take place from 15 to 25 February 2018.