Due to some unforeseen last-minute conflicts, Abbas Kiarostami's final interdisciplinary essay film, 24 Frames, will unfortunately not have its Madison premiere as part of the Wisconsin Iranian Film Festival at Union South's Marquee on February 25 (1 p.m.). In its place, the festival has booked the debut narrative feature, Kupal, from Kazem Mollaie, who also wrote the psychological character study of the titular rotund taxidermist (Levon Haftvan).
In short, Kupal could be described as a surreal survival thriller or an absurdist tragedy that borrows and amalgamates elements from Roman Polanski's most theatrically rooted and trenchant works, Kafka's Metamorphosis, and even a bit of James Wan's Saw (2004). Mollaie immediately relays its thematic intentions through Kupal's self-imposed living situation, as he holes up in a sizable compound that's extensively branded with fragmented, futuristic-looking logos of a canine (perhaps his obedient German Shepherd, Haiku) and scrutinized with seemingly innumerable surveillance (GoPro) cameras.
What contact Kupal has with the outside world lingers on sporadic visits from his estranged wife Firoozeh (Nazanin Farahani), who attempts to break Kupal's pattern of paranoid and destructive behaviors with an emotionally charged ultimatum that threatens his own livelihood. In his occupational fortress, Kupal should be exerting utter control through technology, and yet a polar opposite and ironic scenario begins to take shape as one of his heavily fortified security doors malfunctions and prevents him from leaving the grounds.
Adept use of slow-motion effects play into the film's progressively voyeuristic and comically doomed qualities, while Mollaie's escalating narrative twists challenge the nature of reality, forcing Kupal to cope in most unusual ways. At its core, Kupal is an anxious portrait of our inherent interspecific bonds and a criticism of the psychologically dismantling effects of an artificially constructed environment. —Grant Phipps