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My Sweet Pepper Land

My Sweet PepperlandDirected by Hiner Saleem
Starring Korkmaz Arslan, Golshifteh Farahani

There is an art to transposing a good Western to another setting, but in general the environment needs to be on the frontiers of civilisation. This could mean anywhere from the reaches of space (Outland, Serenity), to a small village in feudal Japan (Yojimbo), to the steppes of the newly re-established  Kurdistan as in My Sweet Pepper Land.

Former freedom fighter, Baran, is growing disenchanted with his new job as the police. Although he keenly realises the need for law in his newly formed homeland, he is cynical of the way such law is being executed. Despite attempts to quit the force and live a normal life (which are quickly kyboshed by his mothers continual attempts at matchmaking) he ends up back on duty and sent to where he is “most needed.” In this case, it is a remote town near the Turkish border. Here he comes  into conflict with a local warlord in a fight for control of the town.

As a transposition My Sweet Pepper Land works well.  With its gallows humour (literally), its beautiful but desolate landscape, its collection of quirky characters, the approaching spectre of modernity, a badass hero and a plethora of armed desperadoes on horseback (albeit the diminutive steppe pony) it feels very much like a spaghetti western. Even its traditional steel-drum-inspired soundtrack sounds like something Morricone could have done in one of his quirkier moods.

Yet somewhere towards the end My Sweet Pepperland robs itself of the bloody climax it should come to, and denies its hero agency. In a film as smart and aware of its genre tropes as this one, it is hard to think this is unintentional. Perhaps there are cultural factors in play, perhaps it does have a more realistic tone to it. Yet in a film that has worked so hard to draw those parallels to the classic Westerns it feels vaguely unsatisfying.

Korkmaz Arslan is physically well cast as the freedom fighter turned town sheriff, with his eerily steely eyes and designer stubble. At times he feels a little wooden in some of the dramatic and action scenes (not entirely out of place for the genre), but ironically handles the comedic elements well. Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies) as a modern woman trying to teach in the village’s small school fills both the schoolmarm and the scarlet woman archetype at the same time. Farahani is quite stunning in this and even manages to play much of the steel drum music that is in the soundtrack.

Despite its strong start, the failure of its third act really lessens the impact of My Sweet Pepper Land. We are left with a quirky film that, in spite of all its swagger, just seems to miss the mark.

DAVID O’CONNELL

My Sweet Pepper Land screens as part of the Lotterywest Festival Films season at Joondalup Pines from April 1 -6. For further information, go to perthfestival.com.au.

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