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To The North – MANIFF 2023 (Film Review)

4 min read
To the North

2023 (Manchester Film Festival) is well underway this year, and the selection of films being showcased at the ninth edition might just be the most varied and impressive yet. One film making its UK premiere at this year's event is the psychological drama ; a multi-international film directed by Mihai Mincan. Mincan's previous work includes The Man Who Would Be Free (2019) and Bondoc (2015) – two documentaries in fact, which means, To the North is his first narrative-based film. But Mihai's skills in moulding fact-based films are also just as effective in his latest venture, as he takes a story based on true events and turns it into a slow-burning thriller with an eerie presence.

The story is almost entirely situated on a giant transatlantic ship as it embarks on a lengthy voyage to Canada – a seemingly innocent journey one may think. However, the film's starting point consists of two men who are stranded in the sea; clinging onto their lives in the shape of one lonesome barrel – this might just be an omen of things to come, and yet, still shrouded in so much mystery. This story is one that causes a lot of misdirection (try and go into it blind and you will reap the rewards). We are soon introduced to Dumitru (Niko Becker) and Georgi (Dimitar Vasilev), both of whom are aiming for the American dream, albeit two very different dreams – one envisions himself as a cowboy “like Dallas” whereas the other is aiming for New York.

The two young men's mission is to sneak onto a container ship and stow away until they've reached the shores of the Land of Liberty. After successfully making their way onto the vessel, the hardest part is now over, right? A Filipino sailor called Joel (Soliman Cruz) finds one of the men and takes him to the ship's higher-ups, a band of ruthless Taiwanese officials led by Captain Tsai (Alexandre Nguyen) who take Georgi away to never be seen again. Engulfed by guilt, the religious Joel happens across the second of the secret emigrants and decides to help him get to the other side of the ocean, even if it means risking his own life, the lives of his friends, and the life of the mysterious Dumitru.

To the North is an extremely dark and sombre film that has the ability to inflict the same amount of pain on its viewers as it does on the characters actually involved. But it's not only dark in the narrative but the intelligent way in which the film has been lit (or lack of) only adds to its dreary aura. It harbours a lot of horror elements, with it being set on a nearly isolated ship with no means of escape, as well as the soundscape that echoes right throughout the film; constructed with high-pitched sounds followed by baritone music, and even some atmospheric electronic songs that create an eerie experience full of anxiety and tension.

To the North

But all those technical aspects have a friend, the greatest of partners, in fact, one that accentuates everything tenfold. The cinematography by George Chiper is exquisite and it becomes the most memorable out of all those technical treats. He captures the scale of this ship from above, or with the use of endless tracking shots through the maze of containers on board. And then there are those slow panning shots from character to character while the light breaks their face in two – that really is the good stuff that makes you fall in love with cinema, alright.

Unfortunately, the bubble has to burst at some point because this is not a perfect film. The dialogue is a little uninspired at times, coming across as very basic (apart from one or two fierce bible readings at least). It's also fairly slow in parts, which is understandable, with its ‘slow-burning' title, but just try to stay with it because the exciting parts are excellent. Thankfully, a couple of bad qualities don't affect the overall outcome because everything else becomes so enlightening and incredibly enjoyable.

The two leads are fabulously in-tune with one another while also holding scenes as individuals. The ending is an absolute showstopper (it actually makes all the slowness worth it in the end) – even with some clear notions as to what could happen, earlier in the film, the surprise when it came to fruition was unexpectedly thrilling. It's one of the most tension-filled films of the year, as the actions of desperate men engulf everyone and everything around them – go into this one preparing for an otherworldly concoction for the senses, and you won't be disappointed.

To the North had its UK premiere at MANIFF 2023