A Kafka adaptation whose misguided loyalty to the source material muddles its larger themes.
K (ND/NF Review)
Tackling the German surrealist author Franz Kafka is no easy task, but a new film, simply titled K (after the main character), attempts to do just that. Co-directors Darhad Erdenibulag and Emyr ap Richard transport the protagonist of Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle to modern-day Mongolia.
Changing very little from the novel’s original setup, K (Bayin) arrives in an unfamiliar town, where he’s just been summoned by a mysterious governor to serve as the town’s new land surveyor. But his greeting by the townsfolk at the local inn is not at all a welcome one. No one seems to have any recollection of his summons, and getting in touch with the governor seems an impossible task—though that doesn’t keep K from trying. He quickly falls for a barmaid named Frieda (Jula), whose flirtations are the only sign of kindness offered to him by anyone. And, as it turns out, she just might be his in (she quickly reveals she’s actually the governor’s mistress).
But even with Frieda’s favor, his time in the town turns out to be one huge bureaucratic nightmare. No one seems particularly keen on revealing any information, and his task of finding an audience with the governor begins to feel further and further out of reach. Eventually, he takes a job as a school janitor, lowering his social station from stranger to servant (it’s hard to know what is worse).
K, perhaps admirably, attempts to capture the dialogue of its source material almost to a fault, removing whole sections but not rewriting the source material. Ironically, considering the care to not change individual lines, I think inadvertently the breadth of the edits have changed the meaning. In contrast, I’m reminded of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo’s meaty, 1500-word novel about the French Revolution that’s seen successful adaptations to both stage and screen. Imagine if, in adapting the novel for film, Les Misérables cut out the character of Fantine. Think about it: A writer could actually choose to do that. We could still follow Jean Val Jean’s life—his rise to mayor, his flight from Javert, his death. However, without the guilt he feels for failing Fantine, we completely lose his motivations.
Likewise K seems too focused on maintaining plot points versus honoring themes. We observe as K comes to town, falls into Frieda’s web, and ultimately loses her (as it turns out he was using her to get closer to the governor, and she was, in turn, using him to make the governor jealous). The problem isn’t so much how loyal filmmakers stay to the source material, but whether or not the film in front of us feels impactful. K feels disjointed and confusing, and I credit a lot of the disorientation to the storyline cuts simply being too deep. If this wanted to be a story of love and betrayal, that’s fine (worked for Titanic), but then it should have been reworked to make us feel something for the main characters.
In short, K loses a lot of its heart in this adaptation. Like how Les Mis is really about the human condition of being miserable, not the ascent of one man, Kafka’s story isn’t about falling in love with a barmaid— it’s about the impossibility of getting up when knocked down under a government that’s cold and uncaring. Without making us really understand how trapped K is, and, indeed, by marginalizing the stories of Barnabas and Pepi, who in the novel try just as desperately as K to move up their station in life from the lowest rung on the ladder, nothing feels important. All that remains in this haphazard plot is Frieda’s love affair and ultimate betrayal of K, but it’s so much less exciting when nothing is explained. Frieda here seems like something of a bitch, when Kafka’s Frieda was just another version of all of them: an opportunistic girl, down on her luck, who saw a way to use someone else to get ahead. Indeed, maybe it’s significant that the title has been changed from The Castle, because we’ve lost all sight that bureaucracy is the villain, not some cheating barmaid.
Things are so chopped up that I question if people would even be able to keep the female characters straight. Pepi (Jüdengowa), a young barmaid who takes over for Frieda once she’s dismissed, is introduced to us exactly once in the film’s first half, and yet it’s through her mouth that the whole plot is explained in the film’s penultimate scene. For viewers unfamiliar with the novel, it must seem odd that this random girl knows so much.
What does elevate the film, and does the most to set a Kafka-esque mood, is the art direction. The off-whites and teals that cover the hotel’s rooms feel cold and uninviting, squarely making both K and the viewer feel like this is not home. A lot of the scenes are shot in really innovative ways: often we’re peering into a room from outside a door, reinforcing the feeling that we, like K, are an outsider here. An inventive surrealist scene comes out of nowhere in the film’s last quarter, where weak with hunger, K starts having bizarre hallucinations while talking to a secretary. The screen blurs and spins in dreamlike ways. It’s interesting but maybe a little too late, because by this point K has broken up with Frieda and since their plot was at the film’s center, it’s hard to care anymore.
The source material is slow and plodding, so it makes sense that K, in turn, is slow-paced and a little long-winded. But for a film like this to work, we need to feel rewarded for our investment. Unfortunately, too much of Kafka’s ideas were left on the chopping block here, so there is not much left lingering as the credits roll. Pepi’s explanation of Frieda as a girl who sought simply to make the governor jealous feels rushed and unsatisfying. We never got to know Frieda. We never got to know K. We never got to see their love for each other (unless a quick-and-dirty sex scene counts). It’s hard to feel betrayed when we never felt like there was anything to lose.