The Black Hen review: Nepali drama puzzles and provokes

Child actors are the stars of this impressive film set against the backdrop of civil war

The Black Hen (Kalo Pothi)
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Director: Min Bahadur Bham
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Khadka Raj Nepali, Sukra Raj Rokaya, Jit Bahadur Malla, Hansha Khadka
Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins

Nepalese filmmaker Min Bahadur Bham’s impressive first feature – the winner of International Film Critics Week at Venice last year – closes with a quite baffling piece of political nit-picking: “During the 10 years of Maoist Insurgency (the so-called civil war) in Nepal, 1996 to 2006 – 13,346 were killed, 14,000 migrated to India, 8,000 children . . . joined Maoist militants.”

One expects to see so-called, that promiscuously used clause, in all sorts of inappropriate contexts: say, “your so-called film review”, or “your so-called corporate tax return”. But these tragic numbers, not to mention the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy in 2008, surely represent a civil war?

The facts and figures are all the more puzzling arriving, as they do, as a closing scroll rather than an opening gambit. During the film – Nepal’s submission for the foreign-language category at the 89th Academy Awards – the viewer must, alone, decipher the military drills and pageantry on screen. Mostly, in keeping with the hazy understanding of the two main characters, the war is a distant backdrop and certainly not nearly so important as the titular fowl. Kiran (Sukra Raj Rokaya) and Prakash (Khadka Raj Nepali) are two young boys, hailing from different castes; one is the village headman’s grandson, the other is the son of a servant.

They are bonded, nonetheless, by friendship and affection for a hen, whose eggs just might make a difference to Prakash’s impoverished family. When the boy’s father sells the bird, the chums desperately attempt to raise funds in order to buy it back. As much as they love the hen – and their affection is genuinely affecting – there is even more at stake. Prakash seems to believe that if they can rescue the precious bird, then Prakash’s sister, who has run off to join the Maoists, will also return safely.

With a nod to Robert Flaherty’s ethnographs, director Min Bahadur Bham conveys a sense of centuries of unchanged, pre-industrial living, suddenly encroached by modernity. Kazakh cinematographer Aziz Zhambakiyev finds interesting textures and colours in a forbidding landscape. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the natural performances of two boys (and their chicken) are the best things about the movie; that is just as it should be. Fowl are friends not food, they insist, just in time for Xmas.