A married man falls for a trans woman in Joyland, the first Pakistani feature to play in Cannes. Saim Sadiq’s atmospheric Un Certain Regard drama also explores a whole family, presenting a picture of a clan torn between modernity and tradition in contemporary Lahore.
Haider (Ali Junejo) has a seemingly happy arranged marriage with Mumtaz (Rasti Farooq). But when he gains work as a backing dancer for the glamorous trans performer Biba (Alina Khan), his eyes are opened to another way of life — and potentially another way of loving. Meanwhile, his wife is frustrated with the expectations of the patriarchal society she lives in, and much less enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing another boy into the family (her sister-in-law has daughters, much to everyone’s disappointment).
The Joyland of the title is an amusement park which provides an escape for many of the group, whether dancing with a troupe or screaming out their pain on a fairground ride.
Haider makes for a quietly compelling lead: a man oppressed by his father’s conventional expectations, and more sensitive than he dare admit. His wife is a tragic figure: a smart woman who deserves more than her lot. But the most distinctive character is Biba, the pre-op trans woman who makes a living with exotic dancing — sometimes in front of a large, relatively mainstream audience, other times for a small crew of lewd, sexually aggressive men.
The relationship between Haider and Biba is riveting — we’re never quite sure how far it will go, or what drives Haider. There’s a suggestion that he may be attracted to men, which infuriates Biba, who identifies as female. And yet there is a tangible tenderness between these two lost souls, both living lives they haven’t signed up for. That Biba has made the brave move to change her gender implicitly emboldens Haider to live more honestly according to his own sexuality. But this may come at a cost.
Joyland has a vivid sense of place, created not so much by its geographical backdrop as its characters. There’s an attention to detail in the rituals of daily life, whether it’s family celebrations or the rehearsals of the dance group. Mostly restrained emotionally, this packs an unexpected gut punch towards the end of the film, where it shifts focus to a deserving subject and drops another key character.
Presumably that’s meant to reflect the perspective of the protagonist, though it does leave some stories up in the air. But Joyland remains a thoughtful, well performed and engrossing drama set in a culture that’s shifting, and not always with ease.