Being a girl or a woman remains a challenging prospect, but it’s even more difficult in certain parts of the world and in cultures where gender prescribes specific expectations and dictates your position in society. Double standards are far more prevalent in these areas as males are basically free to behave as they wish and any responsibility of wrongdoing is immediately thrust upon the females who are demanded to exhibit more control. But the irony of these situations are increasingly less accepted as borders become less finite and more liberal thinking is able to pass through. Mustang is the story of five young women trapped in the purgatory between evolution and deep-rooted tradition in Turkey.
Lale (Günes Sensoy) and her four sisters (Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu and Ilayda Akdogan) are nearly inseparable. Raised by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas), they’re a little more uninhibited than is considered acceptable by certain neighbours but they’re generally good kids. However, some innocent horseplay with some of their male classmates on the last day of school has unexpected and catastrophic results. Rumour spreads quickly and they’re suddenly considered harlots by the rest of the town. Their uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) goes to great lengths to save their marriage prospects, most of which involves barricading them in the house. Soon the “wife factory” is turning out finished product, but Lale refuses to submit to their outdated practices.
The youngest of the girls, Lale is the feistiest. She speaks her mind, orchestrates more than one escape and learns to drive a car all in an effort to find freedom from the lifelong servitude imposed upon them. While imprisoned, the girls dutifully clean the house, learn to cook various traditional recipes and allow themselves to be fitted for drab-coloured, shapeless dresses. In their downtime, their playfulness turns to solemnity and they dream of rejoining the world outside their door. The only time they are seen outside the house during their infinite sentence is to be paraded as eligible marriage material and then when they’re wedded to whoever requests their hands.
The first half of the film is quite similar to Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides as the tightknit sisters’ guardians overreact to their spirit in spite of their innocence and confine them to their home; though it lacks the former’s moody soundtrack. Boys lament their removal from society, windows serve as a bridge to the world beyond and the escalating strictness threatens their sanity. But this film goes beyond unsympathetic adults being irrationally overprotective because their actions and reactions are deeply ingrained in a culture that approves of such extreme measures. When girls are thought to have broken the rules, this is how they should be dealt with — though some of the elder women discreetly demonstrate their disagreement with secret gestures of solidarity and support.
Writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s feminist portrait is a powerful depiction of the harm caused by these young women’s unjust treatment. The intimacy she achieves by capturing their secret expressions and private moments throughout the picture allow the audience to become invested in their lives and empathize with their situation. Viewers’ hearts will race with theirs as their acts of rebellion are nearly discovered on several occasions and things to come to a dangerous head in the film’s conclusion. Yet we are also seduced by their virtue, strength, beauty and promise shown through natural and purposeful cinematography. Lale is the perfect narrator for the story — seen through her spirited eyes, their hope for a better life never truly dies.