by mh musings
In a beautiful cinematic feat, internationally acclaimed Can Ulkay’s Ayla The Daughter Of War narrates the tale of Turkish Sergeant Suleyman Dilbirligi and an orphaned girl he rescues while he is a young soldier sent to South Korea in 1950. Based on a true story, the stunning, multiple award-winning film about human bonds that transcend borders and blood ties was the entry from Turkey for the Oscars in 2018. It has won several awards on the festival circuits, and rightfully so.
Even though Ayla didn’t get shortlisted at the Oscars, it was nominated for several awards at various film festivals. Ayla scored multiple wins as Best Foreign Film including at WorldFest Houston, Sedona International Film Festival, Richmond International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival, and Asian World Film Festival. Mr. Ulkay also won numerous Best Director awards, and the accolade has opened new doors for Mr. Ulkay and Turkish Cinema.
Fast friends from Iskenderun, a coastal city in the Hatay province of Turkey, Suleyman and Ali get drafted into the Turkish UN brigade sent to South Korea as one of the first responders to the threat posed by the North Korean invasion. Suleyman is a proficient mechanic with a local sweetheart who wishes to be married soon and Ali is a non-commissioned officer known for his marksmanship and his deep love for Marilyn Monroe.
With a promised tour of one month, it is a point of pride for both to be able to serve their country but the realities on the battleground come as a surprise where their base camp gets attacked and peril awaits around unexpected corners.
During one of their nightly patrols, they come upon the site of a massacre from a local village, and Suleyman finds an orphaned little girl holding her dead mother’s hand. Through further death-defying predicaments, he is able to bring her back to their camp and provide her with protection.
It becomes obvious that Suleyman forms a special bond with the girl, whom he names Ayla. Her name means ‘halo’, because her face glowed in the full moon when she was found. And Ayla is allowed to stay with the battalion, especially under Suleyman’s care, until she can be placed with a locally run agency. As a Korean native, she is not allowed to be adopted by a foreign soldier.
Muted since her family’s annihilation, after a few weeks five year old Ayla starts talking in a torrent of Turkish, and regards Suleyman as her “Baba”. Suleyman also becomes very protective of her, alarmed by the prospect of ever separating from her. He takes on many risky moves, often supported by Ali and the rest of the battalion, to help keep her in his care and to protect her, but war leaves marks that are not always the visible kind. He extends his tour, which creates problems with his relationships back home, but Suleyman does not leave Ayla until he is forced to. And even then, he promises to come back for her, because ‘fathers strive for their children. They keep the promises they have made to them.”
After Suleyman’s return, he eventually marries and has a supportive wife who tries to help reunify Suleyman with his daughter of war, but not knowing her Korean name, they are unable to locate the girl through their own efforts. Decades later, Suleyman still thinks of the promises he couldn’t keep, sometimes seeming like he yearns for Ayla more than for his biological daughter.
Eventually, through the efforts of a reporter working on a documentary, Suleyman and Ayla are reunited in 2010, when Kim Eunji (Ayla’s real name) was 65 years old. Here is the clip from the original documentary, also included in the film, when Suleyman reunites with Ayla:
Heart of the Story
Can Ulkay’s directorial debut for a feature film is nothing short of incredible. It is a war epic that is filmed well with decent special effects to capture the tragic nature of the pursuit and includes grandiose aerial shots that show the magnanimity of the destruction. Far less graphic in nature than what we see in Hollywood war movies, Ayla still works well because the backbone of the story are the human relationships affected by war. In typical Turkish fashion, the characters are revealed in a layered narrative, blending in everyday small details such as showing Suleyman redirect an army of ants with food rather than with insect killers. This leads to a commanding officer played by Murat Yildirim to say “someone who cannot hurt an ant has been sent to war.”
The focus of the movie remains on the humane side of the Turkish troops, shown as soldiers who proudly rose to the call of their country but are not vested in the politics. Endearingly, men at war swarm around a little girl of the land they are chartered to protect, without any racial bias towards her. They do not treat her as a symbol of the perpetrators of the war and neither do they victimize her. They take refuge in her innocence and seek to always remain in touch with the light in a world darkened by war.
In the part of the actress that plays Ayla, Kim Seol is absolutely delightful with her doleful expressions and squeals of laughter when amused with simple things. The way she blends into a camp full of hefty grown men and serves as a beacon of hope is wonderful and illustrates how artificial the sovereign borders we fight to protect can be. Love does not need any language. One does not need to be a blood relative to take on the burden of being a father, and a child only needs pure love to feel the shadow of a parent’s hand.
After they met in 2010, Kim Eunji and Suleyman remained in touch, and Kim managed to be by his side when Suleyman passed away at the age of 91, in December 2017, a month after the film premiered in Istanbul.
While the pace of the movie is slower than the tempo we are used to in Western action movies, Ayla manages to keep the audience engaged through the soulful and humane characters who triumph over the ugliness of war. Framing the shots to amplify the human story seems to be a Can Ulkay specialty, also witnessed in his latest movie Paper Lives for Netflix, starring Cagatay Ulusoy. Each character has a tale to tell, and much as the success lies in how the script is written, it also lies in how Mr. Ulkay allows the viewers to experience the characters as the story evolves. Special effects, increasingly a keystone in Hollywood blockbusters, do not outperform the individuals and their stories.
With a talented ensemble cast, led by Ismail Hacioglu as the young Suleyman, Ali Atay as Ali, Damla Sonmez as Suleyman’s sweetheart Nuran, Busra Develi as Nimet (a girl from Suleyman’s hometown of Maras), and veteran actor Cetin Tekkindor as the elderly Suleyman, Ayla is a fine display of Turkish men and women of honor, and the bonds that bind us despite external differences. It is a deserved treasure in Turkey’s collection of contemporary movies.
Inspired by Korean channel MBC’s 2010 documentary ‘Ayla, My Korean Daughter’, preparation for the movie adaptation started in 2015. As Mr. Ulkay says in this panel interview with Deadline magazine, Ayla is produced by Dijital Sanatlar Production in Turkey, and the filming started in 2016, taking place over 100 days. With screenplay by Yigit Guralp, actors from Turkey, US, and Korea, and filming in Turkey and Korea, the pre to post production spanned a period of two years. The meticulous attention to detail is captured in the grandiosity of the production, and Hollywood actors such as Eric Roberts also make an appearance. Enjoy this slideshow of behind the scenes photos, which illustrate the preparation and commitment by the cast and crew:
Mr. Ulkay, whose experience of being a commercial and music video director reflects in the efficiency with which each frame is constructed, makes his directorial debut for a feature film with aplomb. In 2018, Ayla was selected as the Turkish submission to the Oscars, for consideration in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Chosen by a 17 person committee at Turkey’s Artistic Events Commission (SEK), Ayla rose to the top among 13 contestants, and remains a feather in the cap for all involved.
If you haven’t watched Ayla already, it is available with English subtitles on YouTube. We hope you will enjoy the heart-touching tale as much as we did. In the meanwhile, you can view these highlights of behind the scenes footage, with the full videos available on Mr. Ulkay’s YouTube channel.
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