Director: Darmasena Pathiraja
Screenplay: Darmasena Pathiraja
Cast: Joe Abeywickrama as Anton; Malini Fonseka as Helen; Vijaya Kumaratunga as Victor
This has the ugly beauty of a cheap cake.
The initial tone - a melancholic song playing over images of a fishing community on the coast - sets up the contrast between the serene world this Sri Lankan film starts with against the inevitable emotional strife within it, the sensual nature of Darmasena Pathiraja's film still a narrative of a conflict within this tranquillity.
His father ailing further inland, Victor the son (Vijaya Kumaratunga), dubbed "Little Boss" by the community, comes from the city with a friend to take over his family's fishing business, at a time when a rival business ran by local Anton (Joe Abeywickrama) has taken a chunk of the produce within this environment and the surrounding islands. Victor represents the conflict of the city person coming to this village, in a similar way to Shohei Imamura's Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) did as probably one of the most underrated Japanese films in existence. Here Victor's tensions with Anton worsened by his own interactions with Helen (Malini Fonseka). A local, she and Victor will consummate the romance between them, and this alongside the horrifying sexism and tribalism, even from her parents, will makes her the real victim of this film's drama. Even Victor himself can be questioned for how he even went into their relationship. The other sane person here, representing the bohemian urban youth who sees the ideals and the city's corruption, is Weera, the liberal who rightly challenges Victor at one point for seducing her, part of the unfortunate wheel of events which transpire. This is more so when someone who grew up with Helen since childhood, Cyril, has an equally sexist possessiveness to her and one whose unhealthy fixation on her leads him to wanting to attack Victor at one point at night.
Jealous of "his" Helen falling for Little Boss, his obsessive attitude is the straw which breaks the camel's back, pushing towards tragedy and actual murder. With only Weera to comment on Victor's transgressions, even Anton has his own virtues, a man who even with his multiple women on multiple islands, and brutish take on business, can still be virtuous. That this still comes from Anton, a figure who is a headstrong man, and certainly not innocence to actions against the one truly sympathetic character of Helen, than it shows The Wasps Are Here does not simplify the theme of modernisation and tradition, as neither is without sins. When the police have to come in from the in-land, the community loses its innocence, but the community itself was innocence with violent ignorance, with the puritanical nature of the community becoming the albatross for Helen to suffer with.
The Wasps Are Here is gorgeous to look at. Preserved from a film print, the term "sensual" was completely appropriate. The score, an acoustic string one with echoing voices, is atmospheric. Pathiraja's film, for a key scene of sexual consummation, tells it entirely through abstraction - of Helen's face, a hand digging into the sand - with the music telling all perfectly. That the film has an abrupt action scene, only abrupt because the sound effects of blows feel like they have wandered in from an entirely different genre of film, cannot undercut the virtues of the film, a struggle in a cultural clash where there are no moral one-dimensions. Even one murder is an opportunistic machete attack by the least expected person whilst the victim was daydreaming on the beast, immediately recoiled in horror at from everyone including the person who committed the act. Even retribution for said act is literally the most haphazard of someone in a tree being slowly sawn into, the banality of how the characters falls into their worse impulses by anger or high emotion fully investing the narrative with real weight.
Darmasena Pathiraja had a small but respectful filmography. He was dubbed in an article, morning an anniversary of his passing, by D.B.S. Jeyaraj the “enfant terrible of Sinhala Cinema", and he is for again a filmmaker who in his home nation, for those aware of him, admired for his talents, especially as he went out of his way through nine feature films to tackle concerns of his nation including those considered taboos. That this film, as great as it is, was protected from a sole surviving and badly damaged print2, just close to being lost, just goes to show the sense that cinema and its history is a layered form we were late to preserving, with the consolation that, preserved by the Asian Film Archive2, they found that print and managed to restore the beauty visually of the film and capture what is an impressive narrative work.
1) Taken from Renowned Film Maker Dharmasena Pathiraja was the “Enfant Terrible” of Sinhala Cinema, published January 30th 2022.
2) Take from the Asian Film Archive's page on The Wasps Are Here, which documents the extent of the restoration is full detail.