Between Two Worlds (Ahasin Wetei) addresses years of civil war and instability in Sri Lanka not with drama, not with documentary reportage, but with an admirably uncompromising and beautiful surrealism. Directed by Vimukthi Jayasundara and shot by Channa Deshapriya (who won a cinematography award at the 2009 Dubai Film Festival), Between Two Worlds is a stunning series of widescreen dreams depicting a land and a people reacting to violence and disorder organically, whimsically, and sometimes superconsciously, but always without ordinary sense and logic.

It had been a good while since I’d seen a purely surreal film, and Between Two Worlds was a primal pleasure. There is, naturally, not much plot to report. The film opens with an arresting sequence in which a young man (Thusitha Laknath) jumps from a low cliff into the sea, and is then washed up on a beach. Though on the surface it appears to be a suicide attempt, we’re not sure whether it could be a ritual, or a symbol, or a dream, or all of the above. The Indian Ocean and Sri Lankan coastline rendered with gorgeous colors and textures in widescreen, the hypnotic sound of the surf, and the half-conscious movements of the young man combine to create quite a spell.

But that spell is broken and a new one cast when the scene suddenly switches to an urban center in the grip of violence and anarchy. We follow the same young man as he inexplicably takes part in a bizarre civil uprising, apparently aimed at the apparatus of communication: thousands of people wearing Mickey Mouse masks attack journalists, blow up radio towers and stations, and smash televisions in the street.

Shortly after he rescues a young woman from being raped (only to cling to her in a rather aggressive and confused way himself), he flees the city again, and spends the rest of the film wandering about the countryside, seemingly in a trance, taking part in strangely disjointed events and interacting with strange people. He is apparently on the run from an unnamed military, which sometimes has anachronistic aspects, as in the astonishing scene in which a group of rebels are attacked by men on horseback. There is some indication our hero is a prophet or some other mystical traveller, perhaps an incarnation of a mythical being, moving outside of time and history, and only witnessing fragments of mortal life and conflict. Many times he takes on the characteristics of an animal: stalking warily through a field of grass, crawling through a jungle, hiding in the trunk of a tree. Jayasundara shapes this unorthodox dreamtime using elemental motifs: trees, water, fish, blood, breast milk. The movie seems to flow according to a stream of consciousness, but it’s also very carefully composed and “painterly” (to use one irresistible buzzword).

As with the best surreal art, Between Two Worlds is inscrutable but edifying at the same time. It portrays war, oppression, and rebellion viscerally, and creates space for us to reflect on our society’s relationship to nature and the timelessness of our actions in this world. As mentioned, Deshapriya’s cinematography is rich and marvellous whether he’s working with huge landscapes or candlelight. It’s difficult to decide whether this film, or the Turkish director Semih Kaplanoğlu’s Honey, which was also at Sydney Film Festival, is more beautifully shot. Between these two and the ghostly, surreal Thai film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, SFF 2010 offered some visionary yet earthy, abstract yet powerful and affecting stuff from the Asian continent.

If Between Two Worlds has a weakness, it’s that a few of the weird tableaux, especially the larger-scale ones, falter in their execution: either becoming silly, or openly betraying flaws in the production design. In the Mickey Mouse riot at the film’s beginning, some of the characters have stilted, unnatural movements, and are obviously throwing fake kicks and punches. Is this intended to highlight the absurdity of violence? If so, it doesn’t really work. Later, in a scene where huge trees are moving in the backround during an unseen skirmish in the jungle, we can actually see the ropes used to manipulate the trees.

This occasional cognitive dissonance is a shame in light of the visionary moments that work so well, like the aforementioned scene with the cavalry, and that in which Laknath’s character takes part in a human chain moving buckets of water. It’s part dance and part mysterious ritual — the men’s choreographed movement and the sound of their chanting is beautiful and disturbing. It’s one of the unforgettable images I’ll retain from this beautiful and disturbing film.