Movies about making movies; in many ways, they’re essential. Sunset Boulevard, The Player, All About Eve, 8½ – perhaps filmmakers create them in order to understand their own lunacy. And perhaps audiences lap them up, because they understand – deep down – reality and fiction aren’t actually that far apart, and nothing exposes that line more than a chaotic film set with a second set of cameras. But all those aforementioned movies had a vision that stretched much further than their premises: Lost in Karastan, a curious new film from director Ben Hopkins, bursts at the seams with enthusiasm for its premise, but lacks any of the ideas to push it beyond that.
Emil Forester (Matthew Macfadyen) is an award-winning Brit director, low on money, ideas and energy. One pleasant-sounding – if befuddling – invitation to Karastan later, and he finds himself in a country he’s never heard of before, presenting his experimental work at a new national film festival. But past the PR smiles and handshakes, Emil sees a country in tatters: the architecture of Karastan is Eastern-European brutalism multiplied by 10, with its inhabitants boasting manners from the wrong side of the 18th century. Upon meeting the President of Karastan (Richard van Weyden), he is given the privilege of directing Karastan’s first proper movie: an epic telling the bloody history of the country in sweeping cinemascope. There are a few obstacles in his way, however: insurgents taking his cast and crew captive or bombing the set, a regime breathing down his shoulder to ensure that Karastan receives a cinematic haigography, and the romantic tendrils of Chulpan (MyAnna Buring), the enigmatic public relations officer who turns out to be more than what she seems.
It has a decent-enough set up, but Lost in Karastan follows the same template set before it a thousand times by better films, with little or no additions or diversions of its own. Noah Taylor’s wayward, crazy actor Xan Butler (yes, that is his screen name) stands as a beacon of manic hope in the middle of production – Forester’s Klinski to his Herzog – but is so underused, that the movie’s pacing and increasingly predictable (and increasingly plodding) plot developments actually grow more painful in his absence. Macfayden offers an interesting presence, a figure of quiet conflict that Karastan sorely needs – but even he ends up representing more potential that Hopkins wastes. The character is 99% nice, while a dark 1% lurks in the back, only striking out when Emil is predisposed with his own power-hungry assholiness on set. But it never evolves into something more psychologically interesting than just getting a bit angry that his coffee hasn’t been delivered on time.
Tone-wise, it feels little more than a competently-made student film, while in its more interesting moments, a terrific horror film surely lurks beneath its surface (this could have been Berberian Sound Studio in the desert). But once the cameras have stopped rolling, Lost in Karastan reveals itself as an uninspired picture that clearly wants to say a lot, but whenever it opens its mouth – silence.
Lost in Karastan is in cinemas and on demand January 22.