Franz Kafka is to film what lightning is to a bottle: many filmmakers try to capture him, but few succeed. Courageous men like Michael Haneke and Aleksey Balabanov have attempted the feat of translating Kafka’s final work, “The Castle,” into the medium of cinema, only to end up with a square peg in a round hole. Now, we have a couple of new brave souls. Darhad Erdenibulag and Emyr ap Richard are co-directors from Inner Mongolia, who have chosen to tackle the labyrinthine world of bureaucratic abyss in Kafka’s seminal novel as their sophomore feature. A supreme undertaking, and a valiant effort, ultimately, “K” is a resounding failure and a butterfingered attempt to capture the essence of a literary genius.
For those unfamiliar with Kafka’s work: firstly, I must implore you not to watch Erdenibulag and Richard’s interpretation as an introduction. Secondly, the plot is wonderfully basic at its core. K. is a Land Surveyor, summoned by the mysterious authority of the Castle to survey a village. While everything that happens in the village is known and controlled by the Castle, the crux of the entire ordeal is based around the impossibility of K.’s direct interaction with it, or any of its officials. Isolating the individual from his environment is perfectly Kafkaesque, and the film turns this into a moderately successful visual cue with the opening: K. dreams of a barren landscape, surrounded only by sky and earth, looking lost, confused, and hopeless. He is woken by the inn-keeper, and the reality is not much different than his dreamworld. He’s dozes off on a chair, in some pasty-wallpapered and lifeless bar, and half a dozen nameless mugs give him a beating with their eyes.
The estranged K. is played by Bayin, a Mongolian actor for whom I’ll go out on a limb to say the international world has never heard of. While this sounds great on paper, since an unfamiliar face is spot-on casting for this protagonist, Bayin doesn’t have much to show in terms of screen presence, and every other cast member seems to take his lead on this. Major characters like Frieda (Jula), Barnabas (Nomindalai), Jeremia (Zandaraa), and Artur (Altanochir), who provide much of the humor, entertainment, and emotion in the novel, here are rendered either lifeless or curiously anti-comical due to the way they’re portrayed. But, perhaps what hurts “K” the most, is the decision to fuse Kafka’s world with a post-modern setting. There are numerous ways one could interpret the location and time period of this story (neither are solidified in the original text), but the way Erdenibulag and Richard interpret it is fundamentally devoid of any comfort. The setting is Inner Mongolia if language and race is any indication, the wardrobe is drab-casual, and the locations are mostly beige monochrome interiors that suffocate every shot with dullness. Even empty space can feel packed if it’s under experienced control, but Erdenibulag and Richard stretch themselves too far in an attempt to sculpt some kind of existential environment, only to be left with emptiness.
The ironic thing is, plots and characters in “K” are adapted almost verbatim from “The Castle,” which ends up hurting the film even more. The more they look into tracing the exact steps and missteps of K.’s interactions with the locals and his attempts to reach the Castle, the less they see the bigger thematic picture conveyed by Kafka’s language. He’s one of those singular authors who’s so synonymous with his work that it’s impossible not to compare the adaptations to his original, which sets the bar intimidatingly high. Because the art of Kafka is so married to the specific effects of literature and prose, translating his work into the moving image is extraordinarily difficult, and unfortunately, Erdenibulag and Richard’s “K” is a failed and inanimate adaptation of one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. [D]