One of the pleasures of the Santa Barbara Film Festival is that the programme throws up films that seem to have come from nowhere and vanish without trace, but which are a real pleasure to catch on their brief appearance (cf last year’s Zift, Poppy Shakespeare, 20th Century Boys). One such title this year is the Iranian Ashkan (Ashkan, angoshta-e motebarek va dastan-haye digar), a US premiere from debutant Shahram Mokri that I bet through no fault of its own will prove hard to find again. Which is a shame, since its fuzzy black and white video photography, jittery camera and obviously tiny budget are fully balanced by an inventiveness, small-scale intimacy and dry humour all too lacking in more widely-seen cinema.
The charmed ring proves to be a somewhat irrelevant and under-developed macguffin and the eponymous hero appears only some time into the picture, a sweet and dumb-looking boy whose psychiatrist is giving him the sack on account of his fourteen suicide attempts. The fifteenth brings him into contact with two blind men en route to a jewelry heist, in a replay of a scene we’ve seen earlier in the film from a different perspective. This is part of the subtitle “and other stories”, though the designation is not quite true: it’s basically a set of incidents entwined by a deft system of chronological slippage to show how the actions of the small group of characters effect one another, from the jewelry fence’s secretary eloping with his son and the pair of goons who trail them, to the lovelorn police sergeant and his equally-so subordinate, a pair of medical students each courted by one of the other characters and pair of artists whose bookend appearances provide a satisfying circularity to the film.
The influence of Pulp Fiction is clear but worn without affect; likewise the opacity of Le samourai, evoked through dialogue if not tone – as one of the goons says “the theme has got to affect you” far more than the narrative events. Although touching on a universal search/need for love, the theme of Ashkan seems simply to be the fundamental interconnectedness of human existence: not a world-shattering concept to be sure, but finely executed on a well-judged scale, enough to be persuasive (there’s has none of Babel’s globalised portentousness, for example).
The neat structure affords some perspective-pulling fun and a touch of mutable memory, aided by a perky, jazzy score (Ashkan even gets his own lilting, melancholy theme song), the characters have a fine deadpan humour and a brief digression in the medical school dissection room sees a dead man rise in split screen to re-enact an amusingly bizarre kitchen accident. After its opening dissertation on the power and longevity of art, it touches on serious themes without taking itself too seriously.