Mohamed El-Assyouti marvels at the subtleties of the search for love in Mohamed Khan's last film
Screenwriter Wissam Soleiman and director Mohamed Khan's second collaboration, Fi Shaqit Misr Al-Gadida (In the Heliopolis Flat) tells a love story. As might be expected from the veteran director, however, there are layers to what the film is actually about. The action involves Nagwa, a 28-year-old music teacher from Minya, who arrives in Cairo for the first time and spends three days searching for her old music teacher, Tahani, the first person to speak to her of love -- which allowed her to consort with her little sweetheart over love songs in the music room aged 14 -- and was fired as a result. For 13 years they have stayed in contact by mail. But the year before, when the letters stopped, Tahani had disappeared; her landlord kept her belongings in the flat, now haunted by her mysterious absence, after he let it out to a young stockbroker who does not believe in love and is having an affair with a divorcée. Inevitably his path intersects with that of the romantic girl who has come to find out whether true love exists.
Interestingly for Khan, whose previous 21 features (with the possible exception of Al-Gharqana, 1992) were all rather realist, the drama revolves around the riddle of Tahani's absence, and this allows for much poetic license. Plausibility and causality are disregarded in favour of a suspense-driven narrative not only gripping but emotionally intense. A 28-year- old girl who has lived all her life in the conservative south, even if you accept the unlikely fact that she is not veiled, would not so happily knock on the door of a male stranger, ride along on his motorcycle or dress skimpily for his benefit. But Nagwa is better seen as a kind of Dorothy finding her way through the Land of Oz, with the stockbroker filling an immense imaginative void as Prince Charming and Knight in Armour. This is also a story of coming of age: the final return to Minya is like Dorothy's return to Kansas; it signifies the end of an initiation of sorts. By then the stockbroker, after all, has been converted: he has broken up with his divorcée and is about to embark on this new enigmatic romance. Tahani's ghostly matchmaking has worked for her favourite student -- she finds true love.
While on her search for love she has introduced a whole host of characters, however, with whom she talks about it at length. The taxi driver, a sort of guide whose name is Eid Milad (literally, "Birth Anniversary"), is faithful to the memory of his late wife and devotes his passion to raising his two daughters; the landlady of the hostel where she lives, Hayat ("Life") was deeply in love with her first husband, whom she lost to a second, whom she also lost, but she still believes in true love. Nagwa's best friend, back in Minya, robs her of her fiancé, whom she agreed to marry only to please her parents, while her roommate, Radwa, tries to kill herself for the third time after another fight with her boyfriend -- who eventually proposes. At the train station the protagonist Nagwa helps a woman deliver her baby; she is on her way to Alexandria, Nagwa finds out, where her mother would take care of her, and she decided to go to spare her beloved husband the trauma of childbirth! There are that many variations on the theme. But like Tahani, Nagwa is, to some characters, simply "in love with love": she does not find true love until she is on a train headed back to her hometown, where distance will presumably keep the fire burning. True love does exist, the film seems to say, but only in absence and distance -- in situations where yearning overshadows consummation.
Due to the paucity of taste in Egyptian cinema over the last decade, one can measure the quality of a film by the reaction of the audience: box-office hits are the ones to avoid; films that provoke surprised giggles, incomprehension or loud complaints may be worth while. And Fi Shaqit Misr Al-Gadida belongs unequivocally to the latter category. The ushers at the movietheatre where the present writer saw the film were sympathising with disgruntled audience members over the complete lack of inner-city music, belly dancing and slapstick comedy. Rather, the film has Layla Murad love songs from the 1950s -- a dedication to the singer at the end indicates that Khan might have been invoking her spirit -- as well as snippets of contemporary pop stars Nawal El-Zoghbi and Nancy Agram. Sex and violence are rather elided but -- and here's the rub -- the closure keeps things in suspense: the lovers exchange neither passion nor vows; they do not even declare their love for each other, flouting audience expectations. This sets Fi Shaqit Misr Al-Gadida apart from romantic films with a happy ending, favouring the journey over the destination.
Indeed there are shots in which the leads cross paths without even noticing each other, which stress the fact that it is chance and whim that direct Cupid's arrows. There are shots with silhouettes; the recurrent low-key atmosphere bestows an air of mystery on the Heliopolis flat. Except for a couple of shots in the opening credit sequence which took place 14 years before the action starts, Tahani never makes an appearance. The visual texture of the film reflects the same sense of the random. Produced by Egyptian Television, the film boasts innovative cinematography by Nancy Abdel-Fattah, set design by Mohamed Attiya and music by Tamer Karawan -- a remarkable combination. The performance of Khaled Abul-Naga in the lead is an improvement on his previous roles, even though he seems to have been type-cast as the middle-class romantic co- lead in almost all his films. Ghada Adel gives an uneven performance: her shaky command of the Upper Egyptian accent and indeed complex emotional transitions are all too obvious; likewise Marwa Hussein as the divorcée. Veterans Youssef Dawoud, Ahmed Rateb and Aida Riyad, by contrast, were excellent. Whether you believe in love or couldn't care less, Fi Shaqit Misr Al-Gadida makes worthwhile viewing -- if only by running counter to the current predominance of run-of-the- mill mediocrity.