Baan in the Thai language means home. Ironically, Leonor Teles’ Portuguese film, Baan, which played recently at the Locarno Film Festival, is about the inability to find it, in the world out there as well as deep within oneself. Both its protagonists are vagabonds, on the run from their surroundings but more so from themselves. They meet each other over an ice cream in a cafe in Lisbon. Kay (Meghna Lall) has travelled to Lisbon all the way from her hometown in Thailand. El (Carolina Miragaia) appears to be seeking solitude in her own company.
Both, apparently, are disconnected from their families, friends, homes, neighbourhoods, cities, countries, and cultures.
Nothing much happens beyond that. Forget a story and plot progression, though there’s a beginning, we don’t get much of a middle or end to Baan either. Teles’ debut feature, like Kay and El, has the feel of a work in progress, with women on self-discovery amid overwhelming urban isolation at its core.
It is not so much a conventional narrative as it is about the evocation of existential angst that stretches beyond cultural divides. It is a universal feeling that envelops human beings irrespective of where they come from, where they are located or where they want to go. The film is all about the absence of a sense of belonging. Something you may not find in your family or circle of friends but come across it in the comfort of strangers.
Baan is an itinerant film. It is structured like meanderings that play out as indulgent loops. The inability to belong is reflected in the interminable peregrination that plays out on the screen. These are wanderings in which places and time collapse. Portugal flows into Thailand, Bangkok becomes Lisbon, and past and present coalesce with the future.
With El, an architect, as one of its protagonists, the film plays with the cityscape in a style that reminded me of how Tokyo gets framed in Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. The film shows an outsider’s look at Japan. Here Lisbon has a scattered, disrupted feel, seen from the perspective of an insider feeling overwhelmingly uprooted.
The flow of sights and sounds gives it a tactile element that is the real strength of the film. It makes us feel, experience, and confront our shared loneliness. Then there is the topography of the faces that the camera rests on, how it catches fleeting expressions passing through the visages, lingers on the gazes—contemplative, scrutinizing, admiring—and captures the unique way El and Kay hold each other in their own eyes. I just wish one could go deeper into their intriguing relationship. Despite two charismatic actors with arresting faces their bonding doesn’t get compelling enough.
The writing could have been more deep and incisive. It doesn’t match up to the visual and aural ingenuity and at times the many conversations get drowned in the clunkiness of words. The reference to the racism faced by Kay is half-baked, doesn’t get explored fully and lacks a proper explanation. It leaves one with distracting, pointless questions in the head.
Baan is a film that is consciously experimental and elliptical and deliberately challenging for the viewers, as it goes round and round in circles. It is at once entrancing and puzzling, beguiling, and confounding, esoteric and empathetic when it comes to its focus on the human condition. It is best understood as a film that is not about arrivals but journeys. Like being on a long road one needs to traverse to reach home; or perhaps not.