The Red Suitcase: Inside the exploitation of foreign Nepalese labour
It is quite unlikely for international festival audiences to see a Nepalese feature, let alone one playing in an A-list gathering.
The Red Suitcase, the sophomore film by anthropologist and filmmaker Fidel Devkota (Wind of Change in Lo Mustang), is one of these rare examples.
Showcased in the Orizzonti section of this year’s Venice International Film Festival (30 August-9 September), the project is a Nepalese-Sri Lankan co-production between Icefall Productions’ Ram Krishna Pokharel and Shova Thapa, Film Council Productions and Cine Sankipa.
"On the whole, Devkota’s picture sorely lacks tension, and while aesthetically intriguing, its characters struggle to form an empathic bond with the audience"
The narrative premise of The Red Suitcase is simple. The film opens with a very long take depicting a pick-up truck driver (played by Saugat Malla) waiting at the Kathmandu airport.
Next, we find out that a mysterious cargo has arrived from the first daily flight from Qatar, accompanied by the titular suitcase.
The man is tasked with this peculiar delivery, which will require him to travel through Nepal’s harsh landscapes to reach a remote mountain village. Along the way, however, he is forced to stop his pick-up truck and stumbles upon a cryptic man living in a tea house (Bipin Karki).
Perhaps influenced by his visual anthropology background, Devkota imbues his film with a heavy observational component which results in the presence of several long takes and slow-paced scenes which may look fairly realistic and organic, but often don’t serve him well at advancing the narration and struggle to keep the viewers hooked.
For example, in several scenes, we can see our protagonist walking from one side of the frame to another, or completing menial actions such as waiting for someone, smoking a cigarette or parking his pick-up truck with little cuts and shown in their entirety.
The driver’s encounter with the stranger living in the tea house may feel like an important turning point – or at least a premise to some kind of revelation.
Instead, it only gives the director the chance to embark on a very long, dull dialogue, where lines are pronounced at an extenuatingly slow pace and the two characters are filmed with an elementary shot/reverse shot technique.
During their 20-minute chat, the driver and the stranger express some loose criticism towards Nepal’s hopeless government and society, share some sparse philosophical or existential thoughts, scattered elements of their biographies as well as a few vague ideas about the generational clash.
Predictably, their conversation doesn’t lead us anywhere significant and ends with the stranger offering the driver to sleep over for the night. The man politely refuses, saying he will be comfortable resting in his pick-up truck. We can surely perceive an eerie yet depressing atmosphere around the stranger and the place he lives in, as the scene is predominantly filmed with chiaroscuro lighting.
It’s fair to say that, visually speaking, the picture is quite fascinating as it sports a highly melancholic cinematography (courtesy of DoP Sushan Prajapati), which chooses a ‘damp’ colour palette wherein dark green, grey and dark blue take centre stage. Other technical credits – such as Uttsav Budhathoki’s score and Ramlal Khadka’s production design – are smooth.
The final third fully clarifies the destiny of the man living in the tea house as well as the nature of the mysterious delivery, and the link it has with the exploitation of Nepalese living abroad. We cannot disclose too much owing to the risk of spoiling the plot, but rest assured that at least some answers will be provided.
In the festival’s official press notes and an interview given to Variety, Devkota said that the film “reflects the spirit of the youth in Nepal today, who live in growing political and economic uncertainty” and “highlights the adverse social costs associated with migration and remittance in contemporary Nepal,” adding how he tried to combine his anthropology background with the crafting of a visually suggestive and deeply melancholic fiction tale.
Here, the helmer’s artistic goals are certainly commendable, although overly ambitious and only partially achieved.
On the whole, Devkota’s picture sorely lacks tension, and while aesthetically intriguing, its characters struggle to form an empathic bond with the audience.
In sum, too much is left unsaid and given for granted, and this may be highly disengaging for those who are not familiar with Nepal’s societal context.
This mixed cinematic language encompassing elements of visual anthropology, observational documentary and arthouse fiction is ultimately not that effective and makes the filmmaker’s second feature a missed opportunity.
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni