Ice on Fire

04/01/2012

Sri Lanka / 1991 / Sinhala

Directed by Prasanna Vithanage

With Sabitha Perara, Sanath Gunatillake, Veena Jayakody

Still from 'Ice on Fire'A helicopter lands atop a mist-shrouded hill and a silhouetted battalion of soldiers is cut loose into the desolation. At a society ball, a suave and reserved lawyer fixates on the pretty woman he has seen dancing. Then an elderly man speaks to police on the phone, inquiring about their efforts to locate his missing grandson. These brief scenes occur out of sequence but, unmistakably, in a strange sort of sync with one another, as the pieces of mobile sculpture, whose disparate shadows are cast by the same arcing sunlight.

We see the lawyer, Harris Makalanda, once again, but this time it is as a mayoral candidate, dressed in the pure white garb of a politician, addressing a crowd of supporters. He tells them that the city is a garbage dump, and that he is the man to clean it up. On top of that, he says, he will also need to clean up the hearts and minds of the people. Applause. At home, in his living room, he and his wife, Kumari, sit in tense silence alongside her parents. Some discussion of Harris’ mayoral run comes up, and it turns to his missing son. “Could even an enemy do a thing like this?” Kumari despairs.

The small boy, Vithija, who is autistic, got separated from his school group while visiting Horton Plains National Park, at a profound and aptly named ravine known as ‘World’s End.’ In spite of the resources and discipline reserved for such things, mist confounds the search. Harris visits the site, and the police chief tells him he is doing the best he can. The policeman talks about a lady in white who was seen nearby on the day of the disappearance, and Harris’ mind switches back to the woman at the party, whom he pursued, seduced, and led on a long and intimate affair. He says it doesn’t ring a bell. A reporter arrives to talk to him and the police dutifully beat the man up and tear the film from his camera.

The politician-to-be knows that the other woman in his life, Annette, is quite possibly responsible for what has happened. But he also knows that if the affair is revealed, his hopes of attaining office will be dashed like a frail body against a pitiless gorge-floor. His wife knows about the woman as well, but it is unclear whether she has made the same connection. Still, she tells him that she will hold him responsible if something happened to the boy. He responds that he is caught up in a war. Only one?

As if only to heighten the sense of complacency, of culpability, short scenes from his relationship with Annette bubble up from within the past, entwined with the ongoing investigation to the point of strangulation. Following the sensuous puncture of their first meeting, the film whips drastically to the wind-blown, sound-swallowing mountainside as the soldiers  lower a rope down the cliff face. It resembles a military operation, and is, in a real sense, a military operation. Clothing on the floor. Annette talks background, the mingling of her Burgher (Dutch-descended) father and Sinhalese mother. She went to a convent, hated it, got thrown out. She tells him flat-out that she feels sorry for married people who are settled, and “trapped within walls of their own making.” Their secret meetings represent the relation between the outer and the inner recesses of this Christian elite, the public face and private bauble becoming entangled, tragically.

Still from 'Ice on Fire'Harris’ father-in-law reminds him that the mayoral election is approaching, and beseeches him to run. He says that his own father served as mayor for twenty years, so there is something of an interrupted dynasty to be formed. The family is using Harris as a pack-mule, carrying their legacy up the mountain. “You have no limits,” the old man prods, but even he would be shocked by the massive grain of truth in that statement. The pitch of the ensuing rise seems well-tuned to the inflated sense of purpose, the mindless gathering that brings someone to the political arena in Sri Lanka. When it seems like a straight shot, there is no choice, no question, regarding whether or not to take it. There is always a great deal more than one person riding on it. Within no time Harris is having mud slung at his posters. There is a wonderful montage of him coming into the race, mostly shown in the fervor of his opponent’s rallies, but also his increasingly sedate demeanor. Within and outside of the rallies, life buzzes onward, getting thrown together with shots of people on the hillside praying for the missing boy and soldiers picking through the undergrowth.

Annette is at home writing in her diary when the police come to take her into interrogation. As if in her scribbled recollection of things, we observe sketches of the tenderness between herself and Harris, with him saying he will leave his life for her, and she just as willing to leave her own. He tells her that he married his wife for status and that she married him to arrest the decline of her once-great family. He says he cannot divorce Kumari because of the child. At that point we know enough to practically hear the unstoppable gears in Annette’s mind set into motion.

Crowds arrive from far away to gawk at the efforts. It’s beyond being a media circus, with people showing up because it’s advantageous to their cause – hippies arrive just for fun, a preacher comes to say that lack of faith caused this, etc. Director Vithanage makes it ambiguous whether this is a political rally, a mass demonstration, or people converging on a popular picnic spot in the park. Perhaps the way these things are conducted is not all that different from one another. It seems interesting to people because the boy vanished without a trace, and a beautiful, wealthy woman is the main suspect. There is a scene in which the opposition for the mayor’s seat is strategizing with his campaign helpers how to prevent Harris from riding a wave of sympathy, or at least, not hogging it all for himself. He decides to go and express his condolences, followed by an ample stream of press photographers.

The reporter covering the case for a local newspaper finds himself forced into a black car at gunpoint and dropped off at Harris’ house. This should be an outrage, but it feels far too routine an occurrence. Sitting him down, Harris tells the reporter that, as a lawyer, as a pursuer of the straight story, he’s fairly convinced “the truth we believe is a big lie” – a banal way of warning him away from uncovering facts. Later on the police chief says, almost verbatim, the same thing. Is this an anomalous affectation of clarity through their self-assured opacity – or is it the obligatory varnish of their hypocrisies? He makes it quite obvious that he is prepared to pay for the privilege to dictate what goes into the paper about him. In the morning he glances at the headline, and, satisfied, begins breakfast.

Still from 'Ice on Fire'Harris arrives at Annette’s place with an armed entourage for tea. The two sit across the table from one another as though separated by a turbid, quarrelsome waterfall. He tells her it’s bad for his prospects if she is indiscreet, or even leaves her house. She is imprisoned by him long before her arrest in their private cottage. While Annette is often seen slick with perspiration, a picture of pathos squeezed in a vice, Harris’ composed (also in the sense of being pre-scripted) demeanor reads like a primer of correct postures and mannerisms – all of them hollow – whether he is speaking to his lover, his wife, or a reporter. From his tranquil face, calculating eyes lift malevolently. He has evolved from a successful man in the shadows into an engine determining things in secret.

Annette asks the driver to pull over outside the child’s school, she looks into the crowds of children. She is harmless-seeming. When she sees the child sitting alone, she leads him away. She pushes him on the swing, trying to reproduce the affection, even fun, she had with his father. The autistic boy reacts badly – in a way that seems brazenly candid compared to the multiple sheets of base-fog that others erect in front of themselves. She loses him. It was one pitiful attempt at love that leaves her alone and weeping among the whispering evergreens.

When she tells Harris that she visited his son he slaps her. She laments being his exclusively, and that he exploited her deep desire to settle down. He gave her a cheap copy of all that – a paper house, a false romance, an opportunistic kind of stability. But when she breaks the glass, real blood issues from her, and real mucus dangles from her tear-stained face. She tells Harris it was a sad attempt to make friends with the boy, and he looks almost as though he could forgive her. Soon, though, the police knock on her door and escort her to jail, and the lawyer is nowhere around to come to her aid.

The police chief leaks the story to the press about his discovery of Harris’ affair – on condition of anonymity. We see the him reading through her confiscated diary. It seems many powerful men have come and gone through her life (including, at one point, himself), but she is no different from any of them, or from Harris, for that matter. She takes what is useful to her, but is perhaps more reflective of the process than any of them. A separated colonial daughter, Annette is a product – and in some ways repetition – of a power-climate in which strategy means wielding control. After a certain point, the only person left whom she can control is the defenseless child.

For her, this affair has been different. It gave her pause, stopped her from using her sexuality in a noncommittal way, instead wanting to possess him. By putting down her desire to marry him onto paper and then scrapping it, she is ejecting it from her heart. But the torn-off page proves incriminating, as it was done the day before the disappearance. It logically seems as though the crime was premeditated, and the missing page could have been proof. So the affair really does damn her, even if it is never allowed to do the same to her lover.

Vithanage’s complex, searing, and unseasonably restrained debut feature has a laminal, almost molten feel as it slips lithely from one parallel unfolding of events to another. Its modulation of place and time do not collide, but rather seem part of a single, sustained brush stroke, the somber, etherized tone only rising above a succinct placidity if it is utterly necessary to do so. He inlays shades of documentary (witnesses delivering their testimony directly to the camera) and melodrama (Annette’s stormy nights, a kept woman isolation) as in a single, level slab of terrazzo. The director’s approach assures that even the loudest topics come bandaged in subtleties, with little direct explanation, everything heightened by suggestion and a feeling of premeditated fragmentation.

Still from 'Ice on Fire'The film steps surefootedly among three points in time: the developing affair (connected artfully to the present), the investigation, and (the most seldom seen) the incident itself – the latter being a convergence point for both the lead-up and final tremors. But things are just short of picaresque – there is little indication, aside from which of the main trajectories they belong to, when each scene is taking place. The result is more of a blind narrative flow than merely a precise chronology that has become shuffled. This is not a film that cycles through motions or concerns itself with how things will fall into place – it drifts, revealing the story it holds within it like figures materializing through a low and murky cloud.

Ice on Fire possesses the understated concentration of Vithanage’s film Death on a Full Moon Day (1998) and the narrative dislocation of August Sun (2003), the latter made up of different, loosely-related stories progressing independently of one another. These two qualities, which are parsed out and pursued separately in his later films, achieves a pleasing synthesis in this one. Distinct points in time compliment and define each other’s significance, as the narrative moves between them like the tongue of a wind chime being twirled by a breeze.

Beautifully shot and sodden with contrast, the  film creates sharply-defined spaces that nonetheless bristle with uncanniness, ambiguity. Toner-black as the shadows are, they also mesh with the grays cast by mist, and with the runny glare of highlights. The interiors are plain and expansive, undecorated and not retaining any human warmth. Things are a sort of alpine-gothic, noticeably sapped of the torrid atmosphere that the fog vignetting the frame edges and the climate of diffusion intimate. When she is asked if she could possibly connect her husband to the woman in white, Kumari’s face is bifurcated by a shadow, girded above and below by diagonal black lines, rendering her a section of a skewed chess board.

The world of the film is one whose outward appearance is always brocaded with a perverse inner-lining; Harris is not merely power-hungry – he is also being utilized, cynically, by those close to him; people running for political office are already shot-callers to some degree (things are rigged, staged, overdetermined) and yet, there are still obscene, almost masochistic gains to be had in nettling people’s sympathy. While there is little pretense of honesty or equality in society, it is still wracked internally by its hypocrisies. Vithanage is less interested in exposing these (which wouldn’t require much effort) than tracing their emotional effect – in this case, two ripples coming from opposite ends of a pond, creating surface chaos on contact. No one learns a lesson, or gets comeuppance. Everything transpires in a grim, wearily mechanical way.

Harris and Annette are both people without much love for humanity. The difference is that, as a man, this frees him and actually aids his ascent. In contrast, she is left to pace the bounds of a small room. Their affair and its aftermath have brought her to the precipice of a personal world’s-end. Equally to blame, he steps out onto a warm bridge of good will, while she finds herself alighting into bottomless darkness.

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