From writer and director Bishrel Mashbat comes Beloved, a tale of a young couple in the United States struggling with everyday life now that their marriage has lost its lustre and early promise.
Anar (Iveel Mashbat) is Mongolian and has moved to America for his wife Kassy (Jana Miley). Anar is bored with his job as a bartender, and from early in the film is flirting with a visitor to his bar. Kassy is an aspiring actress visibly lacking any spark, as the couple barely touch each other and go through the daily routine of making breakfast, cleaning the cat’s litter tray, keeping their apartment clean and going about their lives. A very pointed early scene sees Kassy in her car listening to talk radio, where the black host is cautioning about the need for a person to marry within their race. Although showing no visible reaction, and clearly not a racist, there is some feeling that Kassy wonders if she has made a mistake marrying someone so different from herself.
When auditioning for a part and having given some background that she is living in the city’s Korea Town district, Kassy is hit upon by the casting director (Ryan – Roy Oraschin), who asks to meet her at a bar she mentioned from that area. Immediately she tells her husband that she is meeting her friend Sarah. At the same time as that engagement, Anar is meeting his friend from the bar (Olivia – Charletta Rozzell), who will later reveal she is pregnant from the encounter. Very quickly – although loaded with both doubts, and then regrets – the couple has cheated on each other: Anar out of boredom of frustration, Kassy out of a mixture of ambition and discomfort with the direction of her life.
Things worsen right away, as Anar wants them to move to Mongolia to look after a family member. Anar guilts Kassy about the need in his culture not to toss family into a home, or to put them under the care of nurses, while he tells her that he was ‘someone’ before he left his home. She retorts that he is happy to drink all day or hang out as his bar, and that he is using his presence in America as an excuse for his shortcomings. This is the set-up of the first act, which takes us roughly twenty minutes into the film’s ninety-two-minute running time.
When both become aware of each other’s infidelities, they attempt to talk, but lack the true emotional intimacy with each other to really open up and to discuss in-depth where they are. Worse, they lack any passion or anger in these moments, suggesting almost an apathy about their future together, though there is evident sadness. Whilst neither appear to be problem drinkers, there are empty and half-consumed wine glasses popping up in shot throughout this film. Their marriage is evidently sexless, and it becomes clear that there may not actually be anything left to save. That it is clearly a young marriage makes it both more and less sad. More, as it has started to die so quickly, less, as this may end-up as a short-lived mistake from which they can both move on. They take time apart – time which is covered very effectively – to consider whether they are, indeed, a mistake, or if there is an alternative way of living that will suit them more.
Beloved reportedly had a quiet tour of the festival circuit, making few waves, and garnering few reviews, positive or negative. Shot in the narrow 4:3 academy ratio, it is a very intimate film for which the camera is merely an observer. It is well-acted and, in its broad strokes, will speak to anyone who has ever been trapped inside something that is failing, regardless of the rights and wrongs of our behaviours. There is a quiet desperation to the whole affair, exacerbated by cultural differences that the first flush of romance had masked. Like the recent Scarlett Johansson/Adam Driver film Marriage Story, there is an emotional truth to what we are seeing. It is also somewhat reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight in watching a marriage crumble in in front of us – in Marriage Story, it had already pretty much failed.
Where this film pales in comparison, is that both Before Midnight and Marriage Story were designed with the idea of a crumbling relationship being framed by discussion between the protagonists. Here conversation is halting, with the (admittedly well-performing) actors not commanding the screen enough to power these exchanges into more than just awkward encounters. Every time (until very late in the work) such a scene takes place, we cut-away/time-jump to another day before we really learn anything new about what exactly is driving these people, or what they really want from life and each other.
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With Before Midnight, we had spent time with Jesse and Celine across two previous films and were invested in seeing them succeed. With Marriage Story, character is quickly revealed through conversation. Here we have two bland and somewhat selfish people self-indulgently going through life unable to consider the needs of the person closest to them. This is not necessarily a flaw in the film, as that may well be Mashbat’s aim, but it does make it extremely hard to get close either to Anar or to Kassy.
This leave Beloved a perfectly serviceable film, with a good understanding of how things can lose their spark. For a film shot so intimately, however, we just cannot get inside the minds of these people, and they are not strong enough characters for us either to love or hate. Decent enough though it may be, this falls into the category of catch it when it is streaming, if the films referenced above were of interest.