A couple from Istanbul, settling in a village in the Aegean region to start a new and peaceful life, realise that they have many local enemies...
Chokehold / Boga Boga appears to share a premise with Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s The Beasts / As Bestas (2022), currently the object of much acclaim in the UK: a couple relocating to the countryside (here, Turkey rather than Spain), hoping for a simpler life, find themselves facing ultimately homicidal hostility. But Onur Saylak’s film is different from most movies utilising this basic setup, going back to Straw Dogs (1971) and beyond, in that the lead character thoroughly deserves the aggression he receives from villagers, even if they take it a little further than necessary.
That’s because we learn early on that Yalin (Kivanç Tatlitug) is a fraudster from Istanbul. He’s the until recently successful operator of a Ponzi scheme which deprived countless Turks of their life savings, one even self-immolating himself on TV in protest. And so we learn, to the dismay of Yalin, that the village where he grew up and he has fled with his wife Beyza (Funda Eryigit) is populated by some of his victims. Almost the only person who welcomes him back, in fact, is a simple young shopkeeper who asks Yalin for investment advice before being rapped on the nose by his father for such foolishness.
Things go from uncomfortable to desperate less than 20-minutes in when Yalin encounters an antique dealer (Kerem Arslanoglu) who acts friendly at first, though is rather determined to chat about shoplifting… before it becomes clear he really wants to talk about theft in general, recognises Yalin, and once lost money with him. A single beautifully-executed scene progresses slowly and inexorably from idle shop-browsing to a drawn-out, no-holds-barred physical struggle, and culminates in the first of several murders that Yalin will commit to protect himself.
The sense of desperation is ratcheted up skilfully, always with a slight sense of humour, though not so much that it detracts from the tension. This is exemplified by a lengthy and well-handled long scene, full of jump cuts, where an increasingly drunk Yalin practises axe and knife fighting at home, and in a different way by the sheer bizarreness of an assault with a spade at a deserted beach resort. Here, Chokehold verges on the surreal, as it does when several characters unexpectedly attend an al fresco Tchaikovsky concert, with a murder eventually committed to its rhythms.
Peril is heightened by the twists of the plot itself: Yalin has evaded prosecution (as long as he keeps his nose clean, his lawyer warns) by selling out his co-conspirators, but does that mean they—as well as the locals—will now be out for his blood? And who blew the whistle on him in the first place? At other times the threat is achieved as much through atmosphere—a nighttime scene where Yalin finds his garden vandalised is especially ominous, even though nothing of particular importance has actually happened compared to his own crimes—or through the performances.
Many of the most memorable moments involve the cop Selami (Gürgen Öz), who won’t harm Yalin himself but makes it clear he looks forward to someone else doing so. While local hunters must pay a fee to the government when they bag a wild boar, “here, hunting you is free of charge… and now it’s open season”. Later, a boat worker (Hayat Van Eck) who apparently ships illegal emigrants from Turkey into the EU seems like he might represent salvation for Yalin, and it’s a sign how far the protagonist has fallen that he’s pleading for the young man’s help.
Eryigit, playing Yalin’s wife, doesn’t seem as well developed as she might be to begin with, but she asserts her own perspective early on when she gets angry with him for lying, and enjoys a big scene and a major revelation towards the end.
Composers Utku Şilliler and Uygur Yigit contribute a richly varied score with effective use of piano, and cinematographer Feza Çaldiran excels particularly with nature—not just broad landscapes (parts of the film were made in Çanakkale, at the Aegean end of the Dardanelles), but also thunder and lightning, worms on a corpse, a river by moonlight, and a shot of Yalin taken from beneath water.
Many little touches from director Saylak and screenwriter Hakan Gunday also keep us wondering how bad the central character really is, and indeed how much is real and how much is in his mind. A man offering lambs for sacrifice by the roadside seems to glare at Yalin accusingly, but so does a neighbourhood dog, which can hardly know who he is. On the other hand, when Yalin takes care to transplant a succulent plant he’s brought all the way from Istanbul into his new garden, the gesture at first seems unexpectedly sentimental on his part, but it’s eventually revealed to have purely avaricious motives.
Even while wrapping his first victim in a carpet, Yalin remembers to pick up the cheap gift for which he originally entered the shop, something which speaks volumes both about his amoral character and his still-remaining hopes for an ordinary life. Yet complaints about inflation on TV suggest that Chokehold’s antihero may not be solely to blame for his antagonists’ financial woes.
Chokehold starts slowly, but after that it never stops holding one’s attention, and it’s made with consistent confidence and originality without becoming flashy or self-indulgent… right up to an intriguing climactic scene which seems to suggest Yalin was justified all along in seeing money (stolen money) as the solution to his problems, but may also hint at redemption, or delusion, or even death.
TURKEY | 2023 | 112 MINUTES | COLOUR | TURKISH
director: Onur Saylak.
writer: Hakan Gunday.
starring: Kivanç Tatlitug, Funda Eryigit & Gürgen Öz.