At its most basic level, the German import Head-On closely follows the formula for a traditional Hollywood romantic comedy: boy meets girl, boy falls for girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl find each other again. Only in this case, the boy in question is a 40-year-old drunkard named Cahit (Vincent Gallo look-alike Birol Ünel) and the girl is Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), a 20-year-old wild child looking to escape from her conservative Muslim family. They meet at a psychiatric clinic where they are each recovering from recent suicide attempts. (Cahit drove his car into a wall, while Sibel opted to slit her wrists.) Upon learning that Cahit is also a Turkish immigrant-the only kind of man her parents will permit her to date-the young woman approaches him with a proposition: They'll get married so they can live together as roommates. That way, she'll finally have the freedom to stay out late partying and hooking up with cute guys, while he'll still be able to drink all day and spend the night with his sometime-girlfriend. Then, after a year or so, they'll get a divorce and go their separate ways. It's a plan with absolutely no flaws-except for the fact that Cahit and Sibel soon realize that they're truly falling in love with each other.
If you think you already know where the story is headed from here, trust me, you don't. One of the pleasures of Head-On is the way the narrative unfolds so naturally. Sure, the plot is built on a series of contrivances, but they feel like actual situations these people would experience instead of twists imposed on the story by an omniscient screenwriter. Suffice it to say, just as Cahit and Sibel are on the verge of becoming husband and wife for real, a violent incident occurs that separates them possibly forever. It's here that the movie really takes off, moving from romantic comedy into full-fledged tragedy.
Beyond its pleasures as a good piece of storytelling, Head-On also provides some interesting commentary on the clash between different cultures. The Hamburg-born writer-director Fatih Akin is himself the son of Turkish immigrants and he's obviously funneled some of his own feelings into the script. Both lead characters represent different sides of the Turkish-German population. Where Sibel's family continues to practice the traditions of their home country, Cahit barely remembers how to speak a word of Turkish. His cavalier attitude towards his background threatens to put him at odds with his new in-laws, particularly Sibel's brother, who correctly suspects that the marriage isn't on the level. Through their relationship, Sibel and Cahit actually come to switch places for a brief period of time. She happily embraces German culture (and German men), while he comes to see there are certain pleasures in a traditional Turkish household (good home cooking, for example).
This aspect of the movie is so interesting, you can't help but wish Akin had explored it in a little more depth, particularly in the second half when both characters return to Turkey. There's a great scene towards the end of the film where Cahit hops into a cab after landing at the Istanbul airport and discovers that the driver is also a recently returned immigrant. The two bond briefly over the places they moved to and their reasons for coming back. More scenes like this, with the characters readjusting to life in Turkey, would have been fascinating. Istanbul itself comes across like a very Westernized city, but Sibel and Cahit don't seem to realize the similarities to the country they just left, or if they do, they unfortunately never comment on them.
Strand Releasing certainly faces a challenge marketing this movie stateside, but Head-On is one of those foreign films that could break out of the art-house ghetto with the right word of mouth. It's a very accessible film and many viewers, particularly those who have lived abroad, will recognize these characters and situations. With his confident direction and deft intermingling of comedy and tragedy, Akin is clearly a talent to keep an eye on.