More action than motivation?
Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner, a film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s bestseller, would seem cruel to disparage. Its subject matter is urgently human. But it's equally hard to be enthusiastic about, because it appears to skirt over some of the main issues it raises—to be a good story at the cost of psychological depth. The movie begins with two little boys in Kabul in the 1970’s who are bosom pals. Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) is rich and Pashtun; Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada) is poor and the son of his father's Hazara servant. Amir has an uneasy relationship with his "Baba" or daddy (Homayoun Ershadi), who seems to consider him a bit of a sissy. Already Amir's passion is writing. It's Baba's business partner, Rahim Kahn (Shaun Toub) who values the writing and encourages Amir.
We don't have to be told that the Hazara are an ethnic group long looked down upon by the Pashtuns: Assef (Elham Ehsas), a bullying older Pashtun boy, makes that abundantly clear when he rebukes Amir for constantly fraternizing with Hassan. Hassan—apparently ready to defend Amir with his life—threatens Assef with a slingshot, and Assef retreats. Later, after a kite tournament Amir wins, with Hassan the true architect of the triumph, Assef, with his two sidekicks, traps Hassan and rapes him. During this event Amir sneaks off and watches.
In the wake of this horrible experience, Amir behaves mysteriously. Presumably out of his guilt over having allowed his best friend to be sexually humiliated and doing nothing to stop it, Amir scorns Hassan and makes no effort to approach the Hazara boy when he hides in shame for weeks. Amir goes further, and falsifies a theft by Hassan to get the boy and his father expelled from the house. Baba, who has already defended Ali (Hassan's father, played by Nabi Tanha), firmly states that he forgives Hassan. Still, Ali and Hassan depart from the household.
Then comes the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979 and Amir's father knows he must flee because he's always spoken out against the communists. As they leave with other refugees, Baba bravely defies a Russian soldier who threatens to rape an Afghan's wife.
The pretty house, the quiet village that was the Kabul of those years, and the picturesque kite tournaments provide a colorful background. And up to this point everybody speaks Dari, the main Afghan language. But this doesn't seem a story about a culture so much as it's a narrative of friendship and betrayal, courage andcowardice, fathers and sons, machismo and homosexuality. In a better movie, these themes might have had more resonance—and above all resonated more with each other.
The story leaps forward and Amir (played by Khalid Abdalla) has grown up and is graduating from a California junior college. He and his father, who live together in considerably reduced circumstances, are part of a community of Afghan exiles. The focus shifts to Amir's finding himself as a writer. He is still misunderstood by his father, who however will soon leave the scene—even more misunderstood, perhaps, by an ex-general Tahiri (Abdul Qadir Farookh), whose daughter Soraya (Atossa Leoni) Amir meets and quickly marries.
Another leap, and Ali's just gotten a box full of copies of his first novel when the phone rings. A voice from the past: Rahim Kahn, calling from Pakistan, telling Amir to come there, for the sake of Hassan.
The movie becomes more of a thriller now as Amir enters Afghanistan from Pakistan in a false beard to save his old friend's son Sohrab (Ali Danish Bakhty Ari) from the Taliban--whose brutal regime and destruction are briefly but vividly pictured. Along the way there are surprising revelations about Amir’s family and the events of his past.
This adventure in which Amir risks his life in harsh new circumstances many years later is expiation of the old guilt for his wrongful behavior toward his childhood best friend. The kite fighting lesson in San Francisco at the end is a touching, but facile, resolution of past wrongs. In a sense the grownup Amir is compensating for his father's shortcomings of those days as well as his own. The too neat, too easy resolutions evidently are the fault of the novel itself. The steely front presented by Sohrab in this scene helps mitigate its sentimentality.(Child actors are important in the film, and perform admirably.) Hosseini, whose first novel this was, has a considerably less sophisticated sense of guilt and resolution than the veteran writer Ian McEwan in Atonement, another novel adapted in a film just released.
The Kite Runner is watchable and vivid, yet colorless filmmaking—in which actions are swiftly sketched in, but motivations and inner ponderings at the story's various stages, hopefully more present in the novel, seem to have been ignored.
Marc Forster has made an admirable effort to achieve authenticity, though a number of the main actors are Persian, and Khalid Abdalla is a British born Arab of Egyptian descent who had to learn Dari for his non-English dialog. The authentic background of the shoot had its blowback. Release of The Kite Runner had to be delayed due to fears that the Afghan boys who play the young friends would be in danger for their lives when the sexual assault sequence became known in Afghanistan. They have been hidden in a safe place somewhere in the United Arab Amirates—refugees from Afghanistan, like Amir and Baba and the novelist, Hosseini.
©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/