This melodrama from Turkey features some great performances, a moving storyline with a surprise ending, and intriguing glimpses of life in Istanbul. Central to the film, and what sustains interest from start to finish, is the sweet relationship between the main characters of Paper Lives (also known as Struggling Alley, the telling name of the street Mehmet lives on). Ulusoy does a stirring job embodying an ailing man with a traumatic background whose seeming last gasp at happiness comes in the form of the adorable Ali. They must have had to rough up the well-known TV actor and model a bit to pull off playing a sick man struggling to make ends meet in an Istanbul slum. His best friend and frequent caretaker, Gonzi, is played by the charismatic Arici, who leads a festive song-and-dance scene at the local baths.
The look of the film is purposefully dark, though even the slums -- full of squatters and kids sniffing glue -- are bright and colorful during the day, bathed in Mediterranean light. The city of Istanbul is an additional character here, a study in contrasts -- edged by lapping waves, connected by modern bridges, dotted with Parisian-looking cafes, called to prayer across loudspeakers. This is a place where, in this telling, males endearingly call each other "brother" yet swarms of boys apparently live on the street, abandoned, sometimes fleeing abuse, drawn to dabbling in drugs. A recurring theme in the film is the need boys and men feel for a loving, protective mother figure. Atmospheric traditional music also sets the mood in several scenes, including one melancholic sequence driving away from the ER while a voice on the radio sings, "I have an objection to my cruel destiny ... to this endless agony." The musician captures Mehmet's feelings exactly.