K’s gorgeously wide open framing often evokes the atmosphere of a great Italian western. The film is extraordinarily pleasurable to look at, particularly the first sequence, in which the titular stranger (Bayin) wanders a Mongolian countryside that’s characterized by skies so blue as to suggest a suspended ocean. The interiors of the buildings in the village in which K. soon finds himself are similarly spacious and un-busy. One is aware of the fact that every object in every shot has been placed where it is purposefully, an impression that’s pleasingly functional and streamlined, and the characters appear to have at their disposal a palpable freedom to roam their surroundings. They work familiar proletariat jobs (clerk, barkeep, maid, teacher, store owner), but they don’t appear to be spatially hemmed in as many workers often are in life.
This openness is a deliberate choice on the part of directors Erdenibulag Darhad and Emyr ap Richard, and it’s a bold one considering that the film’s source material is the unfinished Kafka novel The Castle. “Openness” isn’t a word one readily associates with Kafka, a poet of constriction, surveillance, and usually justified paranoia. In The Castle, for instance, the author goes to great effort describing the groups of people that often engulf K., pestering him with bureaucratic laws that are so metaphorically nonsensical as to suggest a contemporary mythology fashioned solely from the fear-mongering needs of corporate office politics. (Needless to say, Kafka’s great theme, of the individual stamped out by the conforming mass, hasn’t aged one iota.) In K, the directors are attempting to achieve a similar effect of suffocation with an opposing formal scheme. The openness, initially enjoyable, is meant to ironically contrast with the impositions of the fastidious social net that gradually ensnares the hero.
It’s a compelling conceit in theory, but in practice it cores the material of its meaning. The aesthetic is at odds with the obsessive, lonely claustrophobia of the source material, draining the plot, which is pointedly meaningless on its own, of its sense of existential foreboding. The influence of the bureaucratic organism of The Castle is heavily felt on the characters, while in K there’s little sense of governing menace, which is to say that the film’s cosmic absurdities, which are loyally plucked from the book, play as little more than disconnected episodes in an affected slacker noir. The title change is telling: In the book, the castle meant all, while in the film, it’s K.’s plight that unsuccessfully commandeers our imagination. Picture Inherent Vice without the majestically elusive emotional undertow of the Golden Fang and you’ve got an idea of the problem here. Partly shorn of Kafka’s metaphor, the nonsensically circular episodes are convoluted and tedious.
The film’s visual scheme isn’t the only element that’s at odds with the story’s meaning. K is also sexy, and the only word less likely to be applied to Kafka’s work than “open” is “sexy.” Bayin is a beautiful man, poised in a fashion that appeals to both men and women (to speak broadly, he’s reserved enough for the former, un-self-conscious enough for the latter), and his presence, pleasurable on its own, further compromises the fussy, strained constriction that drives the novel. Bayin has a sexual agency that transforms his character’s adventures with a variety of women, who’re also beautiful, into a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that compliments the ultimate getaway cruise vibe of the staging. The Castle is about a social trap, while K is pointlessly concerned with an egocentric daydream of a social trap.