“No one gives something for nothing.”
All of the evils that emerge over the course of “In Flames” — and there are quite a few of them — stem from that prescient warning that Mariam (Ramesha Nawal) relays to her mother. The 25-year-old medical student is alarmed by the resurfacing of her sleazy Uncle Nasir (Adnan Shah), who has conveniently offered to pay all of their family’s debts after a lifetime of neglecting her and her brother. The family’s financial struggles cause her concerns to fall on deaf ears, but a lot of agony could have been avoided if her mother had just learned the film’s key lesson: some gift horses should be looked in the mouth.
Zarrar Kahn’s genre-bending horror movie — which has the well-deserved honor of being the first Pakistani film to premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight in over four decades — is a Kafkaesque saga of niceties gone awry. What begins as a story of a poor family relying on the kindness of their community quickly turns into a hellish tale of how the ground is always shifting underneath you when all of your benefactors have an angle. Inconvenience gives way to discomfort until there’s nothing left but barbarity.
Fariha (Bakhtawar Mazhar) has been through a lot. The death of her abusive husband put her in the undesirable position of raising two young children alone in a tiny apartment in Karachi, Pakistan. While she was able to hold down a job as a schoolteacher, her country’s draconian restrictions on women forced her to rely on her own father for financial support. But when he dies, she’s left with a mountain of debt that he spent a lifetime accumulating. Her eldest daughter Mariam is preparing for the final exams that she expects will launch her medical career, but her younger son Bilal is still very much a dependent.
So when Uncle Nasir offers to settle all of their father’s accounts with no strings attached, it’s hard to blame her for seeing him as a godsend. But her daughter — whose education and professional ambitions have equipped her with a more modern worldview — is instantly skeptical. She warns Fariha to avoid signing any legal documents without reading them, but her mother isn’t particularly interested in poking holes in the golden parachute. At a certain point, Mariam has no choice but to shrug her concerns off — she has bigger things to worry about.
In addition to her studies, the aspiring doctor has allowed herself to cautiously enter a new romance with a boy from the library named Asad (Omar Javaid). While she’s initially hesitant about the distraction he poses, his carefree charms begin to erode her discipline until she’s gleefully ditching obligations to ride his motorcycle to the beach. Between the new relationship and the financial freedom she can see on the horizon, Mariam seems like she’s finally ready to live her life on her own terms.
She gets about an hour to enjoy that euphoric feeling before Asad dies in a motorcycle crash on the way home from the beach. Mariam is immediately aware of how much danger the streets pose to a single woman at night, so she has no choice but to hitch a ride with the first cab driver she finds. The man refuses to accept payment for taking her home, creating yet another implied debt that Mariam never asked for.
Mariam doesn’t have much time to feel sorry for herself when she gets home, because the family suddenly has much bigger problems. Uncle Nassir has predictably screwed them over and is now claiming that he legally owns their apartment and wants them out immediately. As Mariam and Fariha try to navigate the country’s Byzantine legal system to save their home, they begin receiving frequent visits from ghosts from their past. Mariam keeps hallucinating a zombie version of Asad who makes lewd gestures outside her bedroom window, and her dreams keep taking her back to childhood memories of her mother being abused. The horrors slowly become more and more menacing until the two women realize that they’ll never be able to build a life for themselves until they burn down their old traumas.
Kahn’s masterful use of red herrings and subtext creates an environment where nobody ever quite knows where they stand. The film’s most nefarious actors are never outwardly aggressive, opting to use carrots rather than sticks to get what they want. Everyone is always eager to offer Mariam and Fariha a favor in moments of need, which allows them to return with their own irrefutable requests at the most inopportune times. The weaponization of kindness is so prevalent that genuine acts of altruism become indistinguishable from transactional traps.
The film layers three separate sources of discomfort — the harsh realities of life as a woman in Pakistan, the universal human urge to be skeptical of unprompted favors and gifts, and the supernatural elements that literally haunt the characters — on top of each other. The result is a story where something feels off at virtually every moment, but you can never quite be sure where the horror is coming from until it’s too late. It’s a seedy ride through a bleak existence that would be entertaining enough to watch with popcorn if it didn’t depict a life that’s all too real for too many people.
“In Flames” premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.