Iran (2017) Dir. Mostafa Taghizadeh
Can you put a price on a human life? Or on a strong friendship? In this current climate of increasing selfishness in society, some people find it easy to do the arithmetic for what should be unconditional and priceless to us all.
Five friends – married couple Hamed (Shahram Haghighatdoust) and Nahal (Sareh Bayat), Niki (Bahareh Kianafshar), Faramaz (Mehrdad Sedighian), and Shahab (Bahram Radan) – are about to leave for a trip to Italy. Two nights before, Hamed sells his car for the last bit of the money to Mohsen (Morteza Taghizadeh) but driving Hamed home, Mohsen knocks down a boy and drives off, leaving Hamed with the injured child.
The shock of this sets off Hamed’s failing liver and is hospitalised, needing an immediate transplant but organs are hard to come by. Shahab finds Rahim (Alireza Ostadi), whose father is left brain dead after an accident, and offers Shahab his liver but demands 100 million toman in cash. Nahal’s friends help her raise the money with relationships frayed during the process.
Iranian cinema is noted for its strong socio-political content, but this debut feature from Mostafa Taghizadeh, a look at the inherent dark side of self-preservation, keeps politics and overt social commentary largely out of the picture. Whether a conscious decision to avoid being banned from filmmaking like Jafar Panahi, or Taghizadeh aspires to be the next Asghar Farhadi, Yellow provides an interesting insight into Iranian life, although, even as a dramatist, Farhadi is still a trenchant commentator on big issues.
Opening with an exuberant and colourful introduction to the quintet, the camaraderie is portrayed as jocular and youthful. The group are buzzing because an invention of theirs as members of a genius science team has a patent and they are hoping to take it to Europe, make their fortune then leave Iran. Okay, so there is some cynicism but that is the total sum of it.
Despite being the youngest, Faramaz is the project leader but feels he doesn’t get the respect from his friends he deserves; Niki is the glamour puss with the brightly coloured headscarf and bold make-up; Hamed is the quiet one, Nahal the stoic glue of the group, and Shahab the sensible, logical one. These tropes are quickly established but only slightly built upon as the film progresses.
Everything moves rather quickly, not helped by some choppy and harsh editing, so the film is barely 15 minutes old before Hamed is hospitalised. If you missed Hamed coughing earlier, his liver ailment would come as a huge surprise; then again, even if you did see it, you wouldn’t have equated it to a such a serious debilitating condition.
But the drama needs a crisis around which everything spirals out of control no matter how rushed and convenient it is. Organs are hard to come by in Iran as they are in any other country, but they also have people hanging around outside hospitals just in case somebody needs a liver or kidney ASAP. This was to be Shahab’s first port of call until a doctor friend puts him in touch with Rahim.
Unlike other Iranian films where the system is the antagonist, Rahim is the closest to being the human equivalent here. He acts all sympathetic and altruistic when he meets Shahab and Nahal but then hits them with the exorbitant remuneration for his father’s liver, a deal his elderly mother and younger brother object to, but Rahim insists he will talk them round.
Shahab volunteers the money from the trip on behalf of the rest of the group, which doesn’t sit well with Faramaz, but capitulates to avoid being seen as a heel. However, they are 52 million short and Rahim wants the full amount or no deal, sending Nahal, Shahab and Niki out at about to call in favours and loans from people they have become estranged from.
Running just 85 minutes, the problem is trying to tell a layered story that involves the relationship of the central cadre become strained and dissolve before our eyes, which requires the characters and their personalities to be ingrained on a much deeper level than they are, whilst the secrets that are revealed and further complications feel like a litany of contrivances thrown in to move the story along.
There is no doubt people like Rahim exist in real life, just as there is a black market for organs, but his character doesn’t ring true enough that even in their state of worry, nobody is able to see he is on the make. Rahim justifies his lofty compensation because his father is brain dead and the organ donation will be whilst he is still technical alive but he won’t be able to benefit from his liver, so this is pure callous, opportunistic greed.
As this was the main inspiration for the script, Taghizadeh isn’t very subtle in how Rahim is portrayed, in turn making Nahal and Shahab look like utter fools for trusting him. I know we are supposed to empathise with their desperation but for a group of geniuses, they fell far too easily into Rahim’s trap. Then again, perhaps the idea is to show the power of emotion and how it can cancel out academic logic in a crisis.
In all fairness, there is a compelling story to be told here, and many the struggles and collapse of the central relationship is handled quite well, but the lack of depth in both the characters and the group backstories sees the narrative and audience investment short changed. Everything is well shot and the cast are strong enough, with Sareh Bayat being the most believable as Nahal.
For a debut work, Taghizadeh does a lot right with Yellow but it is easy to see how his enthusiasm for making a hard hitting film and score points for artistry leaves it lacking in some critical areas. Enough to pick the bones out if it for a passable watch though.