Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Dead or Alive- Kemal Sunal (12 of 12)
We close out our long-running and perhaps slightly off-putting series with a profile of Turkish comic actor Kemal Sunal, considered by many to be 'The Turkish Charlie Chaplin.' In fact, one of his films bears a close resemblance in plot to Chaplin's "City Lights."
Sunal was born in the eastern Turkish city of Malatya in 1944. Like many Turkish comic actors including the duo of Zeki Alasya and Metin Akpinar, Sunal transfered from the theatrical stage to cinema. His first play was entitled "The Unwilling Doctor."
He got his first big cinematic break with the smash comedy hit "Hababam Sinifi" (The Outrageous Class), released in 1975 the film has a huge cult following both in Turkey and among the Turkish diaspora living in Europe. It was followed by many sequels. In the orginal film, Sunal pulls several hilarious antics including building a tunnel to escape from the school grounds and secretly smoking in the school's attic.
Sunal usually played poor/working class stiffs and the films he appeared in addressed the social issues of the 1970s and 1980s, a turbulent time in Turkish history in which the country's far-right and far-left took up violence to spread their political aims.
The unique aspect of Sunal's comedy was that it was highly political, yet also mainstream. The films, for the most part, were liberal enough to examine the plight of the working class in Turkey yet centrist enough not to offend authorities who were jailing more radical cinematic figures like the controversial actor/director Yilmaz Guney,best known for his Cannes award-winning film "Yol" (1982) who was frequently in prison during the '70s.
Turkish cinema during this period reflected by right and left sentiments as the action star Cuneyt Arkin, aka "The Turkish Chuck Norris," appeared in over-the-top films like "Once Vatan/My Country First" (1974) in which his character, a Turkish agent, goes to Cyprus to basically kick Greek ass (the film was made while Turkey was in a brief war with Greece over Cyprus and issues from 1974 are still mostly unreolved regarding the matter).
I profiled Sunal's 1980 comedy "Gol Krali/The Golden Boot" for a thesis I wrote on Turkish cinema while a graudate student at Hollins University in Roanoke, Va., in 2005. The film which revolves around an average, everyday man who finds that he has superlative soccer skills and he is thus able to somehow play for Istanbul powerhouse GalataSaray in their game against rival Istanbul team Fenerbahce. SPOILERR ALERT: Well, this is a fairly predictable one as Sunal is able to score several goals and lead the team to victory.
Some of Sunal's other significant films include the cult classic "Tosun Pasha"
(1975), "Kapicilar Krali/King of the Doormen" (1976) and "Devlet Kushu" (The State Bird) (1980).
My friend Bilge Ebiri wrote an excellent article about Turkish cinema which appears in the web site www.cinema-scope.com
Though the article focuses on current Turkish cinema and does not mention Sunal's works, Ebiri does touch upon on how the social upheveal of Turkey during the '70s was reflected in the cinema of the time, and the trend continues though Turkish films have become slightly less political in recent years as has American cinema.
SIDEBAR: We were saddened to learn that '80s teenage star Corey Haim died of an apparent drug overdose in Los Angeles. He will likely be best remembered for his role in "The Lost Boys" (1987).
SIDEBAR TWO: Today is the 70th birthday of our own right-wing action movie star Chuck Norris. I actually watched Norris' mid-80s film "Invasion USA" and Michael Moore's left-wing comedy "Canadian Bacon," which came out a few years later (Moore's only feature film as director to date) on dvd in the same weekend. It was very amusing.
SIDEBAR THREE: We should mention that the subject of our last entry in this series Topol is indeed alive and well though he does not act in films very often these days.