Joyland (2022) Review

Joyland (2022)
Director: Saim Sadiq
Screenwriters: Saim Sadiq, Maggie Riggs
Starring: Ali Junejo, Rasti Farooq, Alina Khan, Sarwat Gilani, Salmaan Peerzada

One of Joyland’s posters is made up of a still that shows one of its main characters in a big, larger-than-reality image that doesn’t quite fit in with its surroundings. The image, at first glance, looks like a kind of projection that wouldn’t seem out of place in something like Blade Runner 2049, but upon further inspection is actually just a cardboard cut-out that’s being transported on a rickety old moped. There isn’t anything in Joyland that is quite as advanced as even the most modest bits of tech in Blade Runner 2049. In fact, the moped is probably as far as the film goes on that front, with its only rival being an air conditioning unit that is presented as being the epitome of a certain standard of living. That said, there is something futuristic in Saim Sadiq’s directorial debut that is far more substantial: the bravery to tell a story with nothing but respect and kindness towards multiple characters with marginalized identities and deep, but understandable, flaws.

As with most feats of bravery through art, Joyland has already faced its fair share of controversy. Despite being Pakistan’s first-ever official Oscars entry, as well as being the country’s first entry into a number of prominent film festivals across the world (including Cannes where it was the recipient of a Jury Prize), it has also been met with claims that it’s “un-Islamic” and “containing objectionable material”. Largely, this comes from its inclusion and fairly positive treatment of a trans woman, Biba (Alina Khan), who makes a living through erotic dance. As a result, its honours were sharply followed by its home country issuing a ban on local distribution. Although the ban has since been overturned in a number of Pakistani states, the difficulty of seeing Joyland in theatres remains the same following a number of threats issued by conservative groups.

The film starts, fittingly for a debut director, with a birth. Right away the family dynamics are laid out for all to see. This is a family with traditional values, who depend on one another to get through life. A woman, panicking at the sight of her waters breaking, gives a strong instruction to her brother-in-law to get her to the hospital. Which he does, on the only vehicle he has access to whether it’s suitable or not. This is the moped from the poster. The man driving it is Haider, played by Ali Junejo. He’s a good-looking guy who, in one way or another, appears to be somewhere near the bottom of his family’s social hierarchy. He’s out of work and he can’t even bring himself to slaughter a goat on the family’s balcony. While many of us would struggle with the same task, his father isn’t shy about showing his disdain at the idea that he could have raised such a weak son. But it’s still up to Haider to do what he can. In the film’s opening scene, it means getting his sister-in-law to the hospital so that she can deliver a baby girl to the world, despite the family’s hopes and wishes for a boy.

In creating a family that holds such traditional values, Joyland is able to deconstruct and observe the gender roles that come with them. This isn’t a film that aims to do that with anything near a broad stroke, however. Instead, we are encouraged to become silent members of the family and come to our own conclusions on how these gender norms play a part in our own lives. The extent to which these gender roles may be enforced or consenting is a focal point, but more important is the distinction between them being restrictive or supportive. What’s so impressive in Joyland’s portrayal of these considerations is that the whole family, characters of different generations and social statuses, are all used to their fullest potential in showing the individual nuances to such a complex societal construct. There isn’t necessarily a definitive right or wrong, and Joyland never pretends that there might be.

With the weight of his family’s expectations on his shoulders, Haider needs to find a job to stand any chance of gaining their respect. This is where we meet Biba, and also where the film begins to come into an identity of its own. Just by meeting someone who is so far removed from his life up until that point, Haider is forced to confront his own feelings on his family and their values, and how much they actually line up with his own. No longer is this a film about traditional family values and the gender roles that come with them, it’s now a film about gender identities and the transition to a new world that includes more than something which was previously so easily constricted. The treatment of Biba, which is so delicately handled through a number of perspectives, is a breath of fresh air. She’s a fully realised character with her own dreams, wants, and flaws, but she is never defined only as a trans woman by anyone except those who don’t understand her.

The introduction of Biba marks not only a shift in Haider’s life, but a shift in Joyland’s tone. Before her introduction, the constraints of a traditional family are presented in somewhat muted, earthy colour scales that feel familiar and suitably dull. It’s a credit to the cinematography of Joe Saade that it almost feels as if the dusty streets are enough to choke an audience on the other side of the world, much like the constriction of the family’s traditional values and expectations of one another. With Biba quickly becoming a prominent figure in the film, Joyland subtly morphs into something far more vibrant and almost otherworldly compared to the greys and beiges of Haider’s family life. All of a sudden, there is a visual sensibility that comes from Sadiq surely taking inspiration from Krzysztof Kieslowski and Paul Thomas Anderson. These two directors have been cited as influences on him, but perhaps more profoundly, so has a lack of Pakistani cinema. There’s clearly a love for Pakistan in these scenes, as the streets of Lahore begin to look like they could be just around the corner from the streets of western Europe that we see in the Three Colours Trilogy, or even the Los Angeles of Punch-Drunk Love.

The film’s heart, really, comes from the quality of its screenplay. Sadiq, along with Maggie Riggs, conveys so much with so little, something that perhaps would have been more difficult to achieve if one of them wasn’t also the director. Nothing is ever spoon-fed, and there’s a feeling that the pair trust us to take what we need from the film. This is particularly evident between our two main characters. Questions of identities, sexualities, and more, are raised by simple gestures that sometimes go so far as to potentially shatter any kind of relationship that the two of them might have. It’s easy to forget that this is Saim Sadiq’s debut feature when such complex and important narrative shifts are delivered in such confidently simple ways. Of course, the danger of that is that certain nuances are easily missed, or other things can be tainted or easily misinterpreted, but those are risks that are seemingly accepted for the sake of making a film with such a far-reaching ambition in exploring its themes. Nothing about Joyland is anything less than assured, assertive, and courageous, and with that comes an optimism in people. The optimism being that we can follow the breadcrumbs far enough to take some fairly heavy, unfortunately still controversial, life lessons from it.

The beauty of Joyland comes from a collaborative effort across its cast and crew. It is a film written and directed with the same kindness and understanding that it’s acted with, and it’s filmed in a way that encourages us to see two very different sides of Pakistan in an empathetic light. All the film asks is that we try to understand why its characters have led the lives they have, and what has motivated them to do what they have in this short window that we’re presented with. If we do, then this is a film that is everything that a film should be: Joyland will leave you with a new perspective on life, as long as you try to find it.

Score: 23/24

Written by Rob Jones

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