City of Life

The premiere of Ali Mostafa's Emirati feature film showed a young director asking bold questions about life in the UAE.

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The film with many plot strands is a difficult genre to get right. You have to find a way of justifying putting all your stories together, which generally ends up in portentous hand-waving about "Fate" or "Society" or some other capitalised abstraction. You have to condense everything, because film operates at the scale of the short story, not the novel, and if you want your film to tell lots of stories they have to be very short indeed. And some of them are always going to look much weaker than the others. In short, it's an ambitious format to choose for your debut feature. That's what the Emirati filmmaker Ali F Mostafa did with City of Life. Remarkably, he just about pulls it off.

The film traces the fortunes of three Dubaians whose experiences, though superficially different, manage to rhyme at a thematic level. There's no need to explain why they're in the same film, of course: the big idea their three stories serve isn't fortune but Dubai itself. As a result, Mostafa is free to make their connections subtler and more exploratory than those in Paul Haggis's Crash, the film he took as his model. The earlier movie asked mostly fatuous questions about racism; Mostafa's film asks mostly interesting questions about what constitutes a better life.

Alexandra Maria Lara plays Natalia, an Eastern-European ballet dancer turned air hostess who drifts into a romance with Jason Flemyng's slimy English adman. Sonu Sood is an Indian taxi driver blessed with the looks of a particular Bollywood star and cursed with his own dreams of fame. Saoud al Kaabi is a rich Arab youth drawn from the family mansion in search of empty hedonism and dangerous excitement. All three are the protagonists of their own, peculiarly Dubaian cautionary fable: one about the fatal allure of a faster existence. It's a tribute to the film's philosophical breadth that, even when things start going wrong for them, it's hard to feel sure that they made a mistake.

If the thematic problem is solved elegantly, the film fares less well against the other challenges of the multi-strand movie. It runs at a sleek 90-something minutes, but its early scenes are abrupt in a way that suggests savage cutting. And even though things are meant to be happening quickly for the characters, the speed at which they happen on screen gives them an air of lightness and unreality that saps their dramatic force. Natalia is supposed to be very prudent, yet no sooner has she met Flemyng's charmless charmer than she is in his power. Sood's travails in a Bollywood lookalike bar might be convincingly purgatorial if they were dwelt upon, but they aren't: he gets the job, he loses the job, and then it's on to the next stage of his quest. No amount of hangdog soulfulness - and Sood emerges as one of the great soulful dog-hangers here - can ground the adventure as something fully believable.

Finally, true to genre, there's one story which outshines its neighbours. Despite his humane and evidently sincere interest in the lives of his western and Indian characters, Mostafa isn't enough of an insider to make them surprise us. With the rich young Emirati Faisal (Saoud al Kaabi) and his trouble-addicted friend Khalfan (Yassin al Salman, aka the Iraqi rapper The Narcicyst), he can astonish. They career between outbreaks of random violence (skilfully choreographed and snappily shot), pull stunts you'd have to be tired of life even to consider, and look on their responsibilities with a mixture of irony and resignation.

Al Salman is as charismatic as you'd expect as an angry young brawler who seemingly just wants to stay out of the cramped family home. Yet al Kaabi, a first-time actor despite a long career on Dubai TV, is the revelation. His portrait of the passive, restlessly dissatisfied Faisal is at once restrained, expressive and thoroughly convincing. He's an overgrown boy half-heartedly running from his duties. Across his furrowed brow the film's great question is written: where is life? Is it the lights on the horizon? Or is it what happens to you when you try to reach them?