IN FLAMES – Review by Jennifer Green

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

In the Pakistani psychological thriller In Flames, women are eternally vigilant for men looking to take advantage of them – physically, emotionally and financially. The film, Pakistani-Canadian director Zarrar Kahn’s feature debut, blends genres and employs supernatural elements to convey the relentless stress of their world. In Flames premiered last year in Cannes Directors’ Fortnight and was Pakistan’s entry to the International Oscar, a bold choice considering the condemning portrayal of inequality and violence against women in Karachi.

Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) is a 25-year-old medical student whose father and grandfather are both deceased. She lives in an apartment with her mother Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) and little brother Jibran Khan (Bilal). A relative known as Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah) starts spending more time at the house. Mariam warns her mother not to trust him, and not to sign any documents he might bring by. Her suspicions are soon proven warranted.

While brother Bilal can run downstairs to play outside with friends, Mariam’s moves are more closely surveilled by her mother. There’s reason for this, too. When Mariam borrows her mother’s car without asking, a man on the street randomly throws a brick through her window and attacks her. His motive isn’t theft; he’s apparently just outraged at the sight of a woman driving alone. Another man masturbates on a street corner at the sight of her on a balcony above. A third man does a kind deed for her, but he eventually turns threatening too.

Mariam’s friend introduces her to a cousin just in from Canada, Asad (Omar Javaid), and he tries to help her as she looks for the man who attacked her car and files a police report. Asad pursues Mariam and the two begin a friendship and flirtation – always respectful, bordering on prudish. She is slow to trust him, but he is the rare good and kind man. The fact that he’s been living in the West, and that younger people in general seem more inclined to question unequal social structures, feels purposeful.

It turns out that Mariam and her mother have previously confronted male violence in their own home. The women also share a seeming connection to spirits, which come to either warn or haunt them. As events take a darker turn, the spirits appear more frequently, and Mariam seems to be slowly losing her mind. Some of the ghostly appearances are a bit hokey (white eyes). Reality for women in Karachi is portrayed as horrific enough without the attempted jump scares, and the film might have been stronger without these elements.

But writer-director Kahn makes up for this in drawing out genuine performances from his actors and using visual and aural cues in interesting ways to underscore their station in life. For example, drone shots occasionally capture from above the chaotic streets and crowded, crumbling buildings of Karachi. Conversations (“Some scars never heal.”) and everyday moments (a bag of rice teeming with bugs) have metaphorical value. Squawking bird noises and a caged bird on Mariam’s patio suggest a feeling of being trapped in this threatening urban sprawl. The messages – and the emotions – are loud and clear.

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Jennifer Green

Jennifer Green is a regular contributor to Common Sense Media, The Hollywood Reporter, The Seattle Times and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was Screen International's correspondent in Spain for ten years. She launched the newspaper column and website Films from Afar to curate international films available for home streaming. She has served on film festival juries across Spain and North Africa and teaches journalism and film to university students.