Sign up for our weekly newsletter
TRCH Hairspray

Film Review: Paper Lives

20 March 21 words: Sebastian Mann

Netflix’s new Turkish-language drama, Paper Lives, is a melodramatic slog…

Director: Can Ulkay
Starring: Çağatay Ulusoy, Emir Ali Doğrul, Ersin Arıcı
Running time: 97 minutes

Turkish director Can Ulkay’s fourth feature, Paper Lives, should be a hard-hitting film.

It follows Mehmet (Çağatay Ulusoy), an ailing waste worker living in the slums of inner city Istanbul. He collects and sells scrap paper with the help of Gonzi (Ersin Arici) and a couple of local tearaways. He makes a meagre living.

His illness is getting worse. He’s in need of a kidney transplant, and with each passing day he feels his life slipping away as he waits for a suitable donor. He’s been saving for years, but the harsh nature of his work only weakens him further. 

From out of a rubbish sack tumbles Ali (Emir Ali Dogrul), a young orphan boy. Mehmet feels an immediate kinship with him, the boy having been quite literally discarded and thrown away. It’s a little ham-fisted, but it works. 

The tragedy of Mehmet feels far from fictional, and Ulkay at first directs the material - working from a screenplay by Turkish TV writer Ercan Mehmet Erdem - with empathy and care.

There’s a sense of community amongst the workers, all from different backgrounds but having sadly arrived at the same place. In one moment, Gonzi proudly smokes a half-spent cigar he found in a bin and the image conjures a hollow pastiche of an Italian mob movie, as he fashions luxury from scraps - truly, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. 

It should be hard-hitting, but it’s not.

The more sappy and lighthearted it gets, the more explosive the melodramatic lows become, and there quickly becomes no meaningful reason to stay invested

These great little moments that feel knowingly heavy-handed quickly get lost in the tonal mess that follows. Paper Lives never settles on a single tone for too long, jumping between flashy and bombastic montages, screaming arguments and gleefully jovial scenes of Mehmet and Ali having a great time at the beach. 

It creates a sort of tonal whiplash. The more sappy and lighthearted it gets, the more explosive the melodramatic lows become, and there quickly becomes no meaningful reason to stay invested. In the less overblown moments Ulusoy’s performance feels strained but believable, but it’s not enough to keep the film going.

Ulkay’s hesitance to commit to either a bleak film about poverty and illness or an uplifting one fatally punctures the experience. That isn’t to suggest you can’t make one that’s both bleak and uplifting, but Ulkay certainly doesn’t manage it. 

As the runtime ticks by - and it feels confusingly long at only 97 minutes - you can’t help but wonder if those self-aware glimmers early on were actually just total flukes, and it’s a real shame. Its down moments only start to feel portentous, and the narrative offers little satisfaction in terms of originality.

It’s at least a technically competent film. It’s shot well by Turkish cinematographer Serkan Güler, and composer Ömer Özgür’s score is probably the film’s highlight. It starts out with a real slithering, nocturnal sound as it tracks the poor workers through the rainy night, but it loses its bite as it shifts into more grandiose, sweeping orchestral arrangements. 

It offers at least a somewhat intriguing perspective into poverty in Turkey but only due to its lack of representation in Western films, not because it’s any good. 

Did you know? Lead actor Çağatay Ulusoy won Best Male Model of Turkey in 2010 in the Best Model of Turkey Awards.

Paper Lives is available now on Netflix

We have a favour to ask…

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion now