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Morals for Sale

The Market (2008)

The Times BFI 52nd London Film Festival

"The Market" is set and filmed in eastern Turkey and Azerbaijan, a part of the world most Americans and Brits have never given a moment's thought. Films in these settings are always interesting, as they provide a little glance into a world most of us had not previously been aware of. What Ben Hopkins – a Brit who has built his film career in the less-explored settings – has made is a small social commentary on capitalism's impact on how people interact with each other. Despite the freshness of its setting, the film's main ideas are pretty used goods.

It's 1994, and small independent trader Mihram (Tayanç Ayaydin) dreams of gaining a license to sell the new mobile phones. He's very much a wheeler-dealer, the man you ask to find you something specific not usually sold in shops. His pregnant wife Elif (Senay Aydin, who doesn't have enough to do) is supportive but concerned about finances, and the local wiseguy Mustafa (Hakan Sahin, with an excellent mustache) mocks his attempts to stay independent. When there's a shortage of one type of childhood medicine at a local hospital, the doctor approaches him to acquire replacements. Mihram sets a plan in motion that involves some illicit deals and a trip over the Azeri border, where his uncle Fazil's (Genco Erkal, a famed Turkish theater actor) contacts will enable him not only to get the medicine, but also set him up with his dream business.

Rather predictably, things go wrong. Mr. Hopkins is a serviceable director, but his visual style doesn't offer any revelations. What really works are the people. Especially likable is Uncle Fazil's story of the night he decided to try raki, the local hooch, and the appallingly funny consequences. But other characters Mihram meets only in passing have just as great an impact: a peasant woman (Serap Önder) screaming imaginative curses at workers is one, as is the woman to whom Mihram sells a bottle of perfume at the border crossing. The film is bookended with songs by a singer called Rojîn, in the style of Fatih Akin's "Head-On." She first appears standing in the back of Mihram's Toyota, singing to the camera as he drives on seemingly unaware of her. This singing accompaniment to the action is seemingly traditional in Turkish storytelling, but her presence is jarring in an otherwise naturalistic narrative.

While the ramifications of the melamine-tainted Chinese baby formula case still in the news, one had hoped that "The Market" would prove to be an apropos commentary about the pressures modern business places on traditional family life. But you have to trust your audience to understand your character's motivations. If someone on screen needs $70 million to buy what he wants, with only $8 million is his pocket, we can work out the struggle for ourselves. Mr. Hopkins oversimplifies his message, patronizing both his characters and his audience. This film has also been made 14 years too late. The business practices the film deplores are now long entrenched. Why is there nothing to say about independent businesses in Turkey now? If these issues had been addressed, "The Market" would have been a much stronger film.


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