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New Release Review - THE BLACK HEN

Two young boys search for a missing hem amid a war torn landscape.






Review by Benjamin Poole (@filmclubchs)

Directed by: Min Bahadur Bham

Starring: Khadka Raj Nepali, Sukra Raj Rokaya, Jit Bahadur Malla, Hansha Khadka



The Black Hen tells a tale that is hugely important. Although the authentic Nepalese setting and historical recreation is integral to the film, the story, with its depiction of enforced migrancy and bloodshed, is universal in its relevance.


Between the years 1996 and 2006 the country of Nepal was torn apart by The Maowadi (the ‘People's War'), an armed conflict against the Nepalese government which was instigated by communist insurgents. During the decade long struggle, 13,246 Nepalese were killed, with thousands to this day still unaccounted for. 14,0000 migrants were displaced to India, while 8000 schoolchildren left their towns and villages to become part of the Maoist militia. Furthermore, of the thousands of people dead or missing, 12% were children. Min Bahadur Bham’s The Black Hen tells the story of Prakash and Kiran, two such children caught between warring factions, whose quest for a missing wildfowl is set to the backdrop of the bloodshed and turmoil caused by The Maowadi.

Fresh off the back of global critical acclaim, with The Black Hen winning the 2015 best film award at the Venice International Film Festival along with various other nominations (including submission for Best Foreign Language film at the Academy Awards), Bham’s film arrives as an unfettered gem. Substituting melodrama and bombast for a beautifully unfussy cinéma-vérité storytelling style, The Black Hen is immersive and moving film-making which presents its slow burning tale with authentically realised detail.


We open in 2001, in a Mugu district village in the gorgeous shadow of the Himalayas. Prakash (Khadka Raj Nepali) and Kiran (Sukraj Rokaya) are best friends, however a caste system would conspire to divide them: Kiran is an ‘untouchable’ from a lower social class, while Prakash lives in a two-storey house and is allowed to wear better clothes. The prejudice and systematic inferiority that Kiran’s family suffers is a matter of accepted social order. Could it be this hierarchal unfairness which convinces Kiran’s sister to join the insurgents in a midnight flit, thus setting the film’s plot in motion?

The Black Hen is no brow-beating polemic. Bham presents his narrative almost entirely from the point of view of Prakash and Kiran, filtering the encroaching disorder that surrounds the boys through their everyday experiences, the vigilance and subtlety of his direction providing the film’s power. The plot is deceptively simple: as she absconds, Kiran’s sister leaves him a chicken as a parting gift, who the lads call ‘Karishma’ after film star Karisma Kapoor. The boys pledge to sell Karishma’s eggs and save for their studies (heartbreakingly, Kiran aspires to be the headmaster of the village school), but the chicken is duly sold off by Kiran’s impoverished dad to a traveller. We recognise this as economic desperation fuelled by unfair social divides; but, for Kiran, Karishma is a link to his missing sister, and resolves to rescue her by journeying to the next village.


Amongst the ensuing boy’s own adventure narrative, Bham portrays Kiran’s incomprehension and fears through sublimely designed but terrifying dream sequences. During one such scene, Kiran remains static as, in a single take, images of religion, politics and casual violence unfold about him in an agonisingly bravura shot. Kiran, stunned, is unable to process the mess that unfolds: his childish mind not prepared for this specifically adult world.

If there is a definable villain in The Black Hen then it is class division. The young Maoists are portrayed as hapless, confused amateurs in sexy red suits; early in the film they perform an awkward agitprop dance for the villagers, who stare on in bemused silence. Furthermore, the violence they enact is shown to be clumsy and indiscriminate; Bham’s device of sieving events through the perception of the children reaches a distressing apex when Kiran and Prakesh, hiding in the woods during crossfire, spread the blood from the dead across their own little faces in order to mask themselves from the communists with guns. The separation that began in the orthodoxy of caste has widened to murder which has its own terrible velocity, and it is, Bham suggests, the innocents who suffer from it.


With its tale of children exposed to violence and social upheaval that they have absolutely no control over, The Black Hen tells a tale that is hugely important. Although the authentic Nepalese setting and historical recreation is integral to the film, the story, with its depiction of enforced migrancy and bloodshed, is universal in its relevance. And if Christmas is a time when we consider those less fortunate than us, who, say, are subjected to war and terror, and uprooted from their homes in search of peace and simply the right to exist apart from tyranny, then The Black Hen, on limited release this week, is required viewing this festive period.

The Black Hen is in UK cinemas now and opens in Ireland December 16th.





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