That hunk in the romance novel you’re reading — what if he was real and ready to mingle? That’s the entertaining and confident premise of Ashes, the newest film from experienced Turkish director Erdem Tepegöz. A pretty, married woman reads a smutty book and scopes out the patisserie where the hot lead — he even has a neck tattoo! — in the spicy book spends his time when he’s not in his carpentry shop. The book’s mysterious author promises that “M” changes the lives of everyone he touches. The shop is real and she, Gökçe (Funda Eryigit), quickly finds out that the book blurs fiction and reality. Her book boyfriend becomes her illicit (and explicit) amour fou in an affair she doesn’t even bother to cover up. Metin Ali (Alperen Duymaz) is the “real” person behind “M” found in Kül (or Ashes), the book in question having been written by a former lover. But what begins as a thrilling romance between Gökçe and Metin morphs into a mystery as Gökçe’s husband, Kenan (Mehmet Günsür), who runs a publishing house where his wife weeds out the literary chaff, becomes suspicious.
The script, courtesy of Erdi Isik, walks on thin ice. A lot could have gone wrong quite quickly here — particularly by tiptoeing in embarrassment around the film’s inherent connection to sensual romance novels usually marketed at and consumed by women — and stereotypically, by women in monogamous heterosexual relationships — but Ashes has enough confidence and sincerity to stave off any such concerns. The samples we overhear from Kül are not that spicy in all honesty, and the erotica crowd would probably shrill at the label being applied here, but Gökçe’s reaction to the book (and especially its sex scenes) reasonably reflects the conventional image of a woman sneakily devouring spicy books in a self-made labyrinth of secrecy. To that end, Ashes mostly embraces the sexy appeal of what it is, albeit within the constraints of the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK)’s conservative standards. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise at all if it later comes out that Ashes pushed the limits of the censors with its BDSM-light scenes featuring both whipping and choking.
Tepegöz and grizzled veteran cinematographer Hayk Kirakosyan both compel as visual stylists. In addition to being a well-accomplished feature director, Tepegöz also has a graduate-level academic background in visual anthropology. This academic expertise, combined with his personal interest in photography, primes him to excavate meaning in his images. Take, for instance, the red glow that all but screams “danger” and highlights the faces of the forbidden lovers during their first kiss in the film’s most romantic moment. This simple scene contains layers of complicated romance, sex, danger, and judgment; the latter comes across only via cinematography as Gökçe carries little guilt, and the filmmakers return with frequency to the reflective imagery of mirrors and the refraction of faces gazing into them from certain angles (or when broken) — the sheer number of mirrors in the film had to overwhelm the production designer. But for the viewer, it never overwhelms or tires, with the film’s hyper-focus on the line between fiction and reality earning the symbolism.
Some will certainly complain that Ashes is too twisty, a complaint that this critic doesn’t disagree with in principal. The film’s final 15 minutes tugs the viewer in one direction, but as soon as it gets them on board, it quickly pivots and moves in a new direction at almost dizzying speed; but in fairness, Isik telegraphs this arc from the beginning if one listens closely enough. Ending and all, then, Ashes arrives as a strong, savvy effort, and Netflix executives can only blame themselves when it comes and goes in the blink of an eye, even in the linguistic and regional industry it targets. Of course, it’s not surprising that Netflix didn’t market or back a film like this in any meaningful way, but in this environment, one may as well be grateful Ashes didn’t end up being a corporate tax break.
DIRECTOR: Erdem Tepegöz; CAST: Alperen Duymaz, Funda Eryigit, Mehmet Günsür; DISTRIBUTOR: Netflix; STREAMING: February 9; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 40 min.