For the Turkish-German lovers Cahit (Birol Unel) and Sibel (Sibel Kikilli), love is all these things and so much more; heck, they barely know what love is, but their rocky, rock 'n' roll journey of that discovery in Fatih Akin's erratically vibrant Head-On is one of the most refreshing love stories in recent memory. Poetic and believable all at once, Head-On juxtaposes the love of one's home against the possibility of romantic love, so in a sense Akin proposes two mysteries: Will Cahit and Sibel fall in love with each other, and/or will they fall back in love with their homeland?
It's no coincidence that when they meet, Cahit and Sibel are both in a mental institution and both expatriated Turks, but there (at first) the similarities end. (But isn't that enough?) Cahit is a combustible mess with anger-management issues that we're forced to suss out as the movie progresses. Unel, it should be mentioned early and often, is a miracle of casting on Akin's part -- one part David Johanssen, one part Robbie Robertson and one part Lou Reed. With big, brown eyes, bed-head hair with traces of gray, and one too many dents in his cheeks, Unel conveys one hard rocker in Cahit with his passion for punk and a disheveled apartment whose only sense of focus comes from the Siouxsie Sioux poster on his door. Cahit doesn't seem to care too much that he's in a looney bin; he doesn't seem to care too much about anything, actually, even if there's still a fire smoldering deep down somewhere where his fluency in Turkish also resides. 'Punk is not dead!' he shouts in one of his more joyful moments.
By contrast, the younger Sibel is in dire straits; frustrated by overbearing parents who have set the clock on her finding a Turkish-born husband, she's already attempted one suicide by slicing her wrists and is waiting for the next opening, so to speak. She believes she's found her solution in fellow patient Cahit; if he'll marry her, she argues, they can both get out of jail free, she can appease her parents, and he'll be able to see the floor of his apartment for the first time in years. Cahit resists her as much as he possibly can, but he sees what we all see: Sibel, maybe 20 years his junior, has all of his fire and independence with twice the beauty and charm. She's a pistol, all right, and even as she proposes marriage, she says sex won't be a problem. She's a promiscuous prowler who won't let a little wedding ring get in the way of a good time.
But love is messy and complicated, and as soon as they move in together (after one of the most hilarious sequences of courtship and wedding in contemporary film), Cahit realizes it's much too easy to just believe they're married in name only. Part of the reason is Sibel Kikilli, who looks like no other actress or combination of actresses I can think of. Her beauty is elusive, for in some ways she resembles a hamster with her beady brown eyes and dramatic nose; her stunning, lithe figure gives her away, but so does her air of mystery and independence that keeps both Cahit and the viewer constantly off guard. If Cahit rocks, Sibel rolls.
As in their relationship with each other and their homeland, nothing is as it seems. Cahit, the one who'd resisted Sibel so much early on, finds himself falling in love with her when given the chance. Both seem to be running away from Turkey, but its magic is reinforced throughout the film by a traditional band performing along the banks of Istanbul's Bosphorus River. Both feel an inevitable tug homeward, which seems to be the place to be when their love is put to the test.
It is here that Akin's message is also put to the test, for Head-On seems to struggle just as the story reaches its rather open-ended inclusion. But maybe this is a good thing; love can be many things to many people, and for Cahit and Sibel love can be a salve without necessarily providing a traditional resolution. Where they wind up at the end of the film, both emotionally and geographically, provides the viewer an opportunity to work things out for a change. After all, Akin might agree with Corinthians in that "love does not delight in evil but rejoices in truth."