Busan 2023 review: Whispering Mountains (Jagath Manuwarna Kodithuwakku)

“The film’s authenticity is evident in its ability to capture the emotional depth of the characters and the complexity of their stories.”

Directed by Jagath Manuwarna Kodithuwakku, already an accomplished actor in Sri Lankan theatre, television and cinema for two decades, Whispering Mountains (Rahas Kiyana Kandu) marks an impressive and authentic debut in the world of cinema. Boasting a talented cast that includes Sarath Kothalawala, Priyantha Sirikumara, Dharmapriya Dias, Sampath Chaminda Jayaweera, and many others, the satirical drama presents a distinctive and thought-provoking narrative that explores Sri Lanka’s troubled history with a particular focus on the devastating impact on its youth over the decades.

Manuwarna’s film serves as a powerful exploration of a haunting pandemic that sweeps across the nation, driving young people to take their own lives. This narrative weaves together elements of horror, mystery, and social commentary. The Disease Control Unit’s desperate measures to contain the outbreak, which involve invoking ancient healing rituals and supernatural forces, add an eerie and compelling layer to the storyline.

Whispers of youth

Manuwarna, hailing from the picturesque and renowned tourist destination of Galaha that is celebrated for its lush greenery and enchanting mountains, deliberately and poignantly chooses to centre his narrative on this very mountain range that reverberates with the echoes of his youth. Yet, rather than merely extolling its natural beauty and commercial value as a tourist destination, Whispering Mountains shrouds a hauntingly different tale – a history etched in the shadows of violence. Throughout the film, the breathtaking beauty of the mountains stands as a silent, mournful presence, a poignant counterpoint to the film’s sombre theme. In Manuwarna’s skilled hands the juxtaposition of this pristine natural beauty against the backdrop of human suffering, which is too frequently overlooked and forgotten, defies stereotypes and emerges as a recurring motif, deftly conveying the profound emotional depth that permeates the story.

Perspective of the killer

The film’s authenticity, as the work of a first-time filmmaker, is evident in its ability to capture the emotional depth of the characters and the complexity of their stories. It can be identified as the first Sri Lankan film to explore the perspective of the killer. It shows the inhuman and casual manner of the group of executors, often with dark humour, which highlights the cynical brutality of those who wield authority. The film also portrays a grieving father who anxiously awaits his son’s return, grappling with the hardships of life and alcoholism. Additionally, it delves into the struggles of a young monk who wrestles with acquiring worldly desires, battles doubt, and contemplates the futility of life as portrayed through the character of an old monk. Manuwarna skillfully navigates these characters’ journeys, allowing the audience to connect with their brutality, struggles, experiences and futility of life. His storytelling is both intimate and ambitious, as he weaves together these diverse narratives into a potent and immersive epic.

Impactful scene

For me the film’s most impactful scene features Manuwarna, who has managed to escape from a torture camp despite being beaten and left in a dire state. He is crawling away from the mountain, his arm bound to the half-hand of his dear friend-comrade that dangles from a pair of handcuffs. His gaze, filled with aimlessness, terror, and despair, is fixed upon the lush green mountain range. This abstract yet intensely powerful visual serves as a metaphorically charged representation of the aimless and terrified youth of the country who were suppressed during uprisings and subjected to violence, including the events of the Black July riots in 1983 and the thirty years of civil war, making it a pivotal moment in the film.

Profound cinematography

Cinematographer Vishwajith Karunarathne’s contribution to Whispering Mountains cannot be overstated. His elegantly composed long takes add a layer of visual sophistication to the film. The gradual unveiling of darker truths through close-up shots that pull back is a testament to the cinematographer’s skill and ability to convey the theme of the cynical brutality of ‘authorized’ killers.

When Whispering Mountains was selected for the Bright Future category at the Rotterdam Film Festival this year, I had the opportunity to interview Stefan Borsos, the South Asian Programmer of Rotterdam. When asked about the unique cinematic qualities or specialties that led to the selection of Whispering Mountains for the Bright Future category, Borsos stated, “Regarding Whispering Mountains, I was particularly drawn to its use of long takes (which I have a soft spot for, regardless of the film’s country of origin), as well as its dark sense of humour. The film managed to resonate with me in a distinct yet powerful way.” 

Follow the dream

Whispering Mountains marks an ambitious and impactful debut of Jagath Manuwarna. In a country where the film industry faces numerous challenges and funding is scarce, Manuwarna’s determination refused to let his dream falter in the face of industry obstacles. He sought innovative solutions to bring his debut film to fruition. Years prior, after winning the Best Short Film award for his Water Lily, in a film discussion forum he had expressed his intention to incorporate it into a feature film someday. Realizing the difficulties of securing funding for full-length films, he embarked on the idea of creating several short films and merging them into a cohesive whole.

This approach seemed radically absurd at the time, with the audience of the forum responding with laughter and applause, few taking his words seriously. Years later, however, at a screening of his debut effort at the Derana Film Awards where he clinched the Best Director award, I reminisced about several scenes from his two award-winning short films that I saw years before.

It’s worth noting that Manuwarna’s cinema, along with dozens of films that have been lined up for screenings for years without proper distribution arrangements by the relevant authorities of the country, should have garnered immense appreciation for the courage displayed by these filmmakers in pursuing their dreams, even when the reality appeared to be a daunting nightmare.