K-Shop (2016)

K-Shop first published by Sight & Sound, August 2016 (here with a different ending)

Review: Although formally subdivided into a prologue and 13 sections (each with its own chapter heading), writer/director Dan Pringle’s feature debut K-Shop is punctuated even more regularly by montages of antisocial behaviour, in which inebriated people are shown staggering, shouting, brawling, urinating, vomiting, having sex and passing out, all in the streets of an unnamed town on England’s south coast. This weekend ritual of hedonistic (self-)destruction is a familiar enough spectacle up and down Britain – indeed, about half of the footage used in these montages is real, captured guerrilla-style over several nights in Bournemouth. Yet Pringle’s film mostly uses the fictions of genre to frame this cultural phenomenon.

Channeling (and distorting) the film’s critical perspective is Salah (Ziad Abaya) – all at once a graduate student specialising in the socioeconomics of nation-building, a migrant outsider with a front-row view of the carnivalesque carousing from his kebab shop counter, and a murderous vigilante tipped over the edge by the death of his father Zaki (Alayef Rashed) at the hands of drunken yobs. As Salah uses his basement to butcher the more irksome members of his passing trade and offloads, Sweeney Todd-style, their rotisseried flesh onto his oblivious customers, he might have become just another reactionary Paul Kersey (from the Death Wish series) or Harry Brown (2009), but Pringle prefers, wisely, to problematise Salah’s actions and to keep the sympathetic yet psychotic hero dangling – along with his awful victims – on the moral meathook.

Even as Salah quickly gains the admiration of young would-be apprentice Malik (Reece Noi), his rage-fuelled actions are presented as manic and misdirected. It takes local, Arabic-speaking hotel manager Sarah (Kristin Atherton) – herself a former student of socioeconomics – to make Salah see a bigger, more analytic picture of the municipal malaise, and one of his more offensive captives (Darren Morfett) to reflect Salah’s own damaged humanity right back at him. Once Salah has recognised the real source of the town’s ills – apart from himself – to be Jason Brown (Scot Williams), a one-time Big Brother winner turned corrupt club entrepreneur and drug dealer, our cultural critic seeks a more salubrious method for taking out the town’s trash, all the while discovering that he is living in the same gutter as those he despises.

“The fundamental problem with you lot: you don’t know how to have fun,” Jason tells Salah (now himself bound in his own basement at another’s mercy). “You open up these shitty shops, and you drive your shitty taxis, so you can get a little bit closer to it, but it don’t work.” Jason’s racism also serves as a sly allusion to that classic of male alienation, delusion and violence, Taxi Driver (1976). Here too, in the end, Salah will be “thanked” by the community for his actions, even if the viewer is rather less comfortable with Salah’s heroic status. Just the right blend of darkly dry and searingly serious, K-Shop carves binge culture into slices that may look unwholesome, but turn out to be complex, palatable and full-flavoured.

Synopsis: South England, 2005. Salah returns from socioeconomic studies in London to look after his ailing father Zaki’s kebab shop, and decides to stay on after his father is killed in an altercation with drunks. One night, aggressive customer Scott accidentally falls headfirst into the chip fryer. Unsure what to do, and still angry over Zaki’s death, Salah slices, grinds and cooks Scott, adding the meat to the lamb rotisserie. Later, drunk abusive Chantelle smashes the computer that stored Salah’s near-finished dissertation – so he murders her, and her friend Josie too. Other victims follow, including Billy, who deals drugs for nightclub entrepreneur Jason Brown.

One night, observed by local Malik, Salah chases a drunken vandal into a budget motel, whose general manager Sarah (also a former student of socioeconomics) calms him down. Salah gives Malik a temp job in the shop. Salah imprisons Steve in the basement for being drunk, disorderly and racist, but eventually, after learning of Steve’s loveless childhood, Salah repents,  decides to stop killing, and lets Steve go. In disguise, Salah films Jason sexually abusing a woman. Malik says he wants to assist Salah’s vigilantism; Salah fires him. Jason imprisons and drugs Salah, trying to intimidate him into handing over the shop. In a tussle, Jason stabs Salah, who dies like a drunk in the street. Planted earlier by Salah, victims’ items and video evidence of sexual abuses and drugs manufacturing lead to Jason’s arrest.

© Anton Bitel