Pingyao 2021 review: Paka: The River of Blood (Nithin Lukose)

Paka: The River of Blood is worth seeing for the calm yet ominous atmosphere that Lukose successfully builds, but remains disappointingly devoid of any novelties throughout.”

Among the various film industries in India (where each state plays host to a separate film capital that produces content in a different language), Malayalam cinema has emerged as one of the most daring and inventive alternatives to the commercial dominance of popular Hindi musicals. Nithin Lukose’s debut feature Paka: The River of Blood continues this recent trend of exciting cinematic activity in the Malayalam-speaking state of Kerala with its strong craftsmanship and immersive atmosphere, but falls a bit short when it comes to storytelling mechanics. This is a dark, beautifully shot film whose peaceful surface hides something sinister lurking just underneath. However, Lukose cannot overcome a familiar, excessively sparse storyline that lacks any notable twists or turns. Celebrated Indian director Anurag Kashyap’s endorsement (he is credited as an executive producer) and valuable festival berths in Toronto and Pingyao could propel the film to some international attention, but a major breakthrough seems unlikely.

This is a violent update on the universal Romeo and Juliet template, following a decades-old feud between two families in a village in India’s rural south. When Kocheppu (Jose Kizhakkan) returns to his village after spending fifteen years in prison for murder, his nephew Johnny (Basil Paulose) is about to secretly marry the daughter of the rival family, whose father is none other than the recently-released old man’s victim. Kocheppu’s homecoming restarts a cycle of violent events and revenge murders that affect everyone in the otherwise idyllic village, with the number of bodies thrown into the titular river rising rapidly. Lukose stages a memorable opening scene as the village diver recovers an unidentified dead body from the river. Based on the reactions of the villagers, the most shocking aspect of this discovery is how ordinary such a harrowing event seems to be for these people, who talk about “quenching the river’s thirst for blood” as if it is a natural thing and who immediately know where to search for a body when anyone goes missing (unsurprisingly, quite a few people do go missing over the course of the film). Transporting this familiar story of feuding families to Kerala changes the dynamics to a certain extent as Anna (Vinitha Koshy), the young bride-to-be, is mostly absent in this version. Paka: The River of Blood is set in an unforgiving, lawless land dominated by men; and women are nowhere to be seen in this patriarchal, overwhelmingly masculine world. The only female character with some influence is Johnny’s bed-ridden grandmother, whose face is never clearly shown and whose mobility is severely limited. The grandmother turns out to be the real monster in the family, brainwashing younger men in the household with revenge propaganda and showing no remorse for the events that have taken many lives.

Part of the problem is attributable to Lukose’s decision to withhold the cause of the feud from the audience until almost eighty minutes into the film. There is a reason behind this choice as Lukose emphasizes the meaningless, cyclical nature of violence and deliberately avoids presenting a “justification.” The side effect, however, is that we don’t really know any of the characters and we have little to no reason to feel invested in their fates. For the majority of its running time, Paka: The River of Blood is a routine and tiresome exercise as we simply wait for the next man in line to be murdered. Without any character development or clearly articulated stakes, it is difficult to remain interested in this gloomy tale. When the initial reason behind the feud is revealed by the grandmother, the trivial background story recounted by the old woman is unlikely to change anyone’s opinion. Even after a slight surprise arrives eighty-five minutes into the story, the film continues in the same vein and follows yet another attempted revenge murder.

What elevates this standard material is the skillful execution. The film benefits immensely from the eerily beautiful location and Srikanth Kabothu’s misty, deceptively serene cinematography. The gruesome details of the murders are mostly kept outside the frame while picturesque views of the river create an increasingly ironic sense of nonchalance. Cultural details are nicely interwoven into several scenes, particularly in the climax of the film which takes place during a crowded local festival. The sound design is also impressive, effectively filling the gaps about some crucial off-screen events, and contributing to the film’s powerful portrayal of the natural surroundings. Paka: The River of Blood is worth seeing for the calm yet ominous atmosphere that Lukose successfully builds, but remains disappointingly devoid of any novelties throughout.