אֲנִי לְדוֹדִי וְדוֹדִי לִי (I am my beloved’s, my beloved is mine).
– Song of Songs 6:3
These are the words inscribed upon the wedding bands my wife and I share, the phrase split between the bands. I forget how we choose them when considering inscriptions and, though it comes with religious connotations, we tend to take a more secular view: I am my wife’s and my wife is mine. We are a partnership belonging to no one and to each other. We met in college, started dating several years later, got married some six years later (give or take), and just celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary. Each moment shares an equal amount of joy and pain *because* we do it together. We don’t always get it right, but we try. When we stop trying, when we stop communicating, that’s when trouble festers. This friction serves as the catalyst in writer/director Bishrel Mashbat’s Beloved, a romantic tale of a marriage on the precipice, fraught with betrayal yet not willing to let go. In this quiet exploration of human connection, there are no winners or losers, merely co-riders unable to change who they are as they work to determine what will be.
Five years ago, Anar and Kassy (Iveel Mashbat and Jana Miley) joyously married one another. Now, the couple is disconnected, their lives primarily spent in silence, attempts at connection thwarted by insecurity. When it comes to light that both have transgressed, the pair put their marriage on a six-month hold. Unsure of what they will do next or what will become of them when the break is over, Anar and Kassy can’t shake their connection, but is that enough?
Falling in love is easy, but staying that way it hard. Falling in love is chemical or psychological. It’s about attraction and what attracts us. Staying in love means accepting a person for who they are, supporting them through words and deeds while being supported by them through words and deeds. It’s a give and take, not a give or take. At least, by my estimation, there should be balance. Most of all, there should be respect. Thing is, unlike the stories we tell ourselves, love is never all or nothing. In his second feature, Bishrel makes this abundantly clear from the beginning: the camera holding on the couple asleep as Anar wakes, considers waking Kassy in an amorous manner before giving up, and going about his morning. So much of Beloved is wordless, whether by the audience not hearing what’s said (those details irrelevant to the actions at play) or by the characters not speaking, and this opening scene establishes a longing that Anar has for his wife, yet feels unable to convey. Something prevents him from waking her, from trying to engage her in some marital time at the start of their day. When Kassy wakes, coming to the bathroom as Anar showers, we see her look at the open can of beer sitting on the sink countertop and over at Anar in the stall, that glance telling us how she feels about his drinking. Yet, when the two are once more on screen together at their breakfast table, Kassy stealing from Anar’s plate as he feeds their cat, not a word is spoken of the beer. The two barely look at each other over their phones. These initial three scenes paint a portrait of a relationship that’s intimate (the sharing of food and bathroom space moreso than a bed), yet distant. It comes as no shock that the two step out on each other, though it is to them, making the characters either horribly oblivious to their own responsibilities or in strict denial. The point, though, is there is connection, there is the spark of something meaningful, they’ve just lost the bulk of it amid the mundane day-to-day tasks of life.
The majority of Beloved is like this, a series of moments of sought (often missed) connection, and Bishrel shoots the entire film in this way. There are maybe two or three moments where the camera is moving, not including to keep up with the actors as they walk, giving the film a feeling that we’re observing life as it’s happening to them. The stillness of the camera evokes a sense that we’re constantly waiting for something happen, for someone to walk into the room, to speak what’s on their mind, to do or say something that might change the trajectory of their life. Perhaps that’s why there’s no score accompanying the majority of the film. Unless we’re playing music (I currently have Alexandre Desplat’s The Midnight Sky playing), all the noise in my office comes from the clicking of keyboard keys, the sound of the heater kicking on, whatever’s generating noise from my children downstairs, or the neighborhood kids outside. Life is the noise of the film, the screaming silence as the characters refuse to speak, the reverberation of past acts and their consequence ringing through their apartment, the toll blaring as hopes and longing turn to ash as they remain unspoken or said poorly. As unmeasured and inarticulate as the characters are in their expression of what troubles them, so is the direction and sound design of Beloved, minimal all around as life isn’t a romantic comedy like When Harry Met Sally… (1989) or Sleepless in Seattle (1993), nor is it darkly comic like The War of the Roses (1989). No grand monologues, no pithy comments. Sometimes life is just a mess of long silence, of stillness, of waiting and expectation. Bishrel captures this aspect beautifully in conjunction with cinematographer Mike Maliwanag (In the Land of Lost Angels), moving the camera only when necessary, shifting the frame from a portal into the story to a window from which we observe the natural deconstruction of love.
On the one hand, by moving away from dialogue as the primary form of communication, there’s a requirement by the audience to lean in, paying attention to actions and deriving context to any reaction. Given how often life is about the moments between moments, the shared experience, the autonomy from convention is a bracing change of pace for a dramatic romance. On the other hand, though, Beloved is harder to connect with, creating a sense within the audience that mirrors the distance between the lead characters. Credit where credit is due, Bishrel doesn’t seem to put much emphasis on whether or not the couple works things out, implying that it is not the point of the journey. My read is that the point is how much of this is (a) normal and (b) avoided through clear communication. Silence is fine and can even be a form of intimacy, but a failure to try to communicate and engaging in self-sabotaging behavior, that will cripple your love in ways you can’t predict or presume. That’s why I think Beloved doesn’t offer much of their before and few hints to the after: it’s the choices made in the now that matter when all is said and done.
As a follow-up to In the Land of Lost Angels, Beloved is a dramatic departure. There are several familiar faces (Iveel, Erdenemunkh Tumursukh, and Uyanga Mashbat return) and there’s some interesting subtext about the immigrant experience in American (from the POV of the immigrant and the one married to the immigrant). Yet the two films couldn’t be more different, not just because there’s no kidnapping in this one, but because this film is an exploration of a more universal experience rather than a specific one. Almost everyone falls in love or desires connection, enjoying the rush of something new or mourning the loss of old. It’s bold of Bishrel to pull back on the expected tropes of a dramatic romance, offering something a little more real, even as the details do tend to get murky amid the timeline of the narrative. Kudos to Bishrel on not losing that sense of rawness from directorial feature debut to follow-up, offering a fresh perspective on an overly-mined genre.
Beloved is currently on the festival circuit.
For more information, head to the official Beloved webpage.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.