‘In Flames’ Glasgow Film Festival Review: An Uneven Look At Patriarchy and Family

In Flames

In Flames, the feature debut for Pakistani-Canadian director Zarrar Kahn, mixes the texture of trauma with the cultural and political dynamics of conservative Pakistan with underwhelming results. Kahn’s film focuses on the aftermath of a patriarch dying, where the eldest daughter Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) and her mother (Bakhtawar Mazhar) exist in a state of flux. Without a male head of the family, the entrenched predation of a misogynistic culture suddenly looms large around them.

In Flames works best when grounded in the perspective of Mariam, its primary protagonist, as she witnesses the inherent violence of a system disinterested in protecting or valuing her. Plus, she and her mother understand the extent to which that violence has always surrounded them. It’s the fact that Kahn is so interested in telling her story through a genre lens that undermines In Flames’ worthy intentions.

It’s not an easy thing to make a culturally specific hybrid between a horror film and a domestic drama. On top of finding a scary way to express the politicized dynamics of an existing culture, without falling into the easy traps of “horror as trauma” gestures, a director has to balance character and scares in a way that doesn’t feel like all the drama is just a precursor to scares, or that a coat of horror paint has been applied to dramatic scenes that would have been better left without.

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It’s not enough to take the horror elements of your horror drama seriously. You have to apply equal amounts of effort to the two genres influencing your film, and you have to make a concerted effort to synthesize them. It’s a high bar for any debuting director, and it brings us no joy to say that In Flames does not clear it. The visions of creeping, supernatural darkness and frequent intrusions of dead-eyed male ghouls feel like spooky window-dressing, or a symptom of a writer only paying due diligence to the non-fantastical elements of the story. In Flames already feels like a dark psychological drama, so it’s unclear why it had to introduce the supernatural at all, especially if it’s treated as glibly as this.

In Flames doesn’t just have noble subject matter—it has a compelling perspective. Nawal performs Mariam’s increasing paranoia of predatory Karachi with a mix of defiance and unease, and what begins as a sure-minded suspicion of the men who intrude into her and her family’s life soon slips into a psychosomatic haze that, at its best moments, feels as overpowering as it’s depicted on-screen.

The most compelling stretch happens in the first act, where the amiable but definitely pushy student Asad (Omar Javaid) insists on courting a reluctant Mariam. The way she softens to his company, interrupted by frequent reminders of Pakistan’s moral policing, is complicated by different predators that Mariam encounters. One stranger even sexually assaults her from below her balcony. Asad’s presence and behavior share DNA with all the male interactions Mariam experiences; what do boundaries look like somewhere that female agency is so compromised?

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Kahn’s visual style consists of claustrophobic and observant camerawork, peering in on the family strife and interrupting scenes with quiet glimpses of zombified ghouls. But the key word is “interrupting”, as in not feeling like the two styles are coherent. The visuals feel appropriate for an asphyxiating domestic drama but insubstantial for a supernatural one. Clearly, a film needs to be taken on its own terms and not judged by the arbitrary standards of genre film. But Kahn’s visuals lack uniformity and the impact that would let In Flames stand independent from the darker aesthetic and narrative choices that have inspired it.

Some of the low-budget drama’s blemishes can’t be too heavily criticized. The low budget means that streaks of visual effects look unconvincing, and major plot events have to be creatively cut around to avoid showing expensive action. Others seem baffling in retrospect. In a film about generational and cultural misogyny, why is Mariam’s younger brother Bilal (Jibran Khan) afforded no depth, even when he’s the subject of a major horror scene?

After the thoughtful and tension-ridden first half falls into obvious metaphor-spinning in the second, Kahn struggles to cross the finish line with anything more than critical observations on Pakistani society and a knack for directing emotive performances. Ultimately, In Flames feels like half a vision. There are hints of a transcendent blending of genres, but it’s too compromised and incomplete to say it’s been reached.



Ultimately, In Flames feels like half a vision. There are hints of a transcendent blending of genres, but it’s too compromised and incomplete to say it’s been reached.



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