Why you should care
On the big screen or on the page, Kafka’s vision of modern life is sure to make you squirm.
Most of Franz Kafka’s work went unpublished during his lifetime; a great deal of it also went unfinished. Both are true of Kafka’s longest and most ambitious novel, The Castle, which is in many ways the summation of his life’s work. In Darhad Erdenibulag and Emyr ap Richard’s screen adaptation, the towering and oppressive symbol of impenetrable bureaucracy is located in present-day Mongolia. It’s tempting to call that a departure from the source material, but, in truth, the eponymous stronghold’s location is never specified, and like much of Kafka’s oeuvre, both its power and its universality are byproducts of its dreamlike murkiness.
Directors Erdenibulag and ap Richard have put those qualities to good use in K. The first scene finds a land surveyor known only as K arriving to the village governed by the Castle, claiming he’s been ordered there by the governor. None of the myriad undersecretaries or other low-level officials have any record of such an order, and K’s many attempts to prove himself are thwarted. The first man to tell him this is initially cut off in the frame as he scolds K for daring to show up without a permit — a literally faceless representative of the Castle’s power who sets the tone for all interactions to follow.
Nearly a century later, the individual remains as powerless against the system as he was between the two World Wars.
Though K’s ordeal is endlessly frustrating, the directing duo never make it feel like a slog — the latent absurdity of it all is such that resigned laughter often feels like the only appropriate response. Kafka’s winding nightmare logic seems a natural subject for cinematic treatment, and yet the lack of definitive adaptations of The Metamorphosis or The Trial suggest that the directors’ endeavor may have been as daunting as their protagonist’s. Luckily, they handle it more gracefully than he does.
The film was notably produced by Jia Zhangke, one of mainland China’s most revered auteurs as well as one of its most subtly political. K’s political subtext doesn’t deviate much from The Castle’s, even if the location has migrated — nearly a century later, the individual remains as powerless against the system as he was between the two World Wars. Credit the novel for its malleability, sure, but also the filmmakers for knowing which traits to underscore and which to tweak.
It may be a Kafka fan-only proposition, however, as there’s a case to be made that K is more satisfying as an adaptation than a stand-alone work. For Slant Magazine film editor Ed Gonzalez, having no prior knowledge of the novel was like arriving at the Castle without a permit. Asked whether the ambiguity that is the film’s bread and butter overstays its welcome, Gonzalez calls that “a bit of an understatement.” Erdenibulag and ap Richard are effective undersecretaries, but, true to its source material, K isn’t especially welcoming to outsiders.