Judge Clark Douglas tried to fly a kite several times as a child, but they all got stuck in the trees.
Our review of The Kite Runner (Blu-Ray), published March 24th, 2009, is also available.
"There is a way to be good again."
When Khaled Hosseini's 2002 novel The Kite Runner was published, it touched the hearts of critics and readers alike. Almost immediately, a film version went into development, and the finished product finally arrived in 2007. Is this cinematic adaptation of the much-loved story a heartfelt success or a weak attempt to capitalize on the popularity of a best-seller? Let's examine the case.
Facts of the Case
The Kite Runner tells the story of two childhood friends. The year is 1978, and the location is Kabul, Afghanistan. Our protagonist is a young boy named Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi), who is the son of Baba (Homayoun Ershadi, A Taste of Cherry), a wealthy merchant. Amir's best friend is Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), the son of Baba's servant. The two do everything together, including seeing movies; their favorite is The Magnificent Seven (dubbed in Dari). Amir loves writing original stories, and Hassan loves hearing them. More than anything, the two love to fly kites. Amir generally flies the kite, and Hassan serves as the "kite runner," speculating (always correctly) where a kite will land or what it will do in any particular situation.
While Amir and Hassan are at their most joyous (having just won a kite-flying tournament), a terrible tragedy strikes. A local bully (Elham Ehsas) and his flunkies corner Hassan and brutally beat him and rape him. Amir witnesses the event from a distance but is too terrified to do anything. Oddly, Amir does not respond to what he has seen with compassion, but with hostility. He throws tomatoes at Hassan and falsely accuses him of stealing things, but Hassan refuses to retaliate. A deep rift grows between the two boys. Hassan's father decides to find a different job, Baba and Amir flee to America when the Russians arrive, and life goes on. However, this is not the end of a tragedy, but the beginning of a tale of hope and redemption.
The plot description I have given you tells you about events in the life of Amir as a young man. However, The Kite Runner divides its time between two different stages in Amir's life: his childhood and his adult years. As such, at times The Kite Runner feels a bit like two different movies. However, one is a good movie, and the other a great movie.
Let's begin with the great portion of the film. The film's opening 50 minutes are deeply affecting and beautifully crafted, a genuinely heart-wrenching portrait of the joys and sorrows of friendship. Anchored by very fine performances from newcomers Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada and Zekeria Ebrahimi, this sequence deals with something as innocent as kite-flying and something as horrifying as the rape of a child, with gentle emotions that keep The Kite Runner from slipping into melodrama. The Oscar-nominated score by Alberto Iglesias is strong throughout but seems particularly inspired during the film's first half, bursting forth with a youthful energy.
Indeed, it's remarkable to consider what a cheerful place Afghanistan seems at the beginning of this story. Thirty years of war and terror are just on the horizon; that knowledge makes it all the more touching to see young children running through the streets, flying kites without fear of anything. Innocence is lost when Hassan is horrifically raped, and Afghanistan itself would soon be brutally abused in the same manner over the years by multiple assailants. This first half of the film works on the more explicit personal level and also works subtly as political allegory.
When Amir is older, living in the United States, falling in love, and ultimately returning to Afghanistan to mend old wounds, the film is engaging and respectable. However, it never quite manages to hit the same level of emotional impact contained within the film's first half. Still, it is good storytelling that is worth seeing. Khalid Abdalla (you may remember him as the terrorist in United 93) plays the part very well and shares a number of nicely written father/son moments with Ershadi (also quite a fine actor). There's also a romantic subplot here, as Amir falls in love with a young girl named Soraya (Atossa Leoni, The Florist).
When Amir makes his return trip to Afghanistan, there are a number of revealing moments. Amir makes the comment that he feels "like a foreigner in my own country." Afghanistan has changed so much since he was a child. Kite flying has been banned, the halftime shows of local soccer games spotlight brutal stonings of women who have committed adultery, and men without beards will be shot in some areas. It's sobering to consider just how far a country can fall is such a short span of time.
The Kite Runner was directed by Marc Forster, who has a very strong track record. Ever since his highly acclaimed Monster's Ball, he has continued to make engaging and diverse films. Each new film he directs seems to offer up a new side of his talent…could the director of Finding Neverland be the director of Stay, and could the director of Monster's Ball be the director of Stranger than Fiction? On the other hand, I think there is a common thread, one accentuated by The Kite Runner: compassion. Forster cares very deeply about their characters and gives them the sensitivity and understanding that they deserve. He may seem an odd choice at a first glance, but in retrospect, he was a good pick to direct this film. These characters need to be handled with care, and Forster brings that skill to the table.
The film has received a pretty solid DVD release, with a good transfer and a decent batch of extras. The surprisingly vivid color palette is presented quite well here, even if a few of the whites during particularly bright scenes blend together a bit much. Sound is strong as well, nicely highlighting the diverse and frequently surprising Alberto Iglesias score. Extras include an engaging commentary with Marc Forster, author Khaled Hosseini, and screenwriter David Benioff. There are some particularly good discussions about decision-making on what to include or leave out when adapting the book. Similar discussions can be heard during the "Words of The Kite Runner" featurette, which runs 15 minutes. "Images of the Kite Runner" is a more standard making-of piece, going into all the usual areas such as casting, locations, and so on. It runs 25 minutes. There's also a PSA from Hosseini, and the film's original theatrical trailer (which perhaps gives away too much).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only significant complaint about the film is a difficult one to address without getting into spoilers, so I will tread very carefully. During the film's final 20 or 30 minutes, there are several scenes that attempt to draw explicit parallels to some of the film's earlier scenes. These moments, for the most part, ring rather false. They don't seem like organic character actions and statements, but forced attempts to insert additional emotion into the film. The movie has enough going for it not to need such phony tactics.
The Kite Runner is a very good film that is well worth seeing. American audiences paranoid of viewing a film with a lot of subtitles and non-movie-stars should stop worrying. It's a very accessible motion picture that deals with themes and emotions that are universal. Anyone in any country will be able to feel the emotional impact of this story. If you are the sort of viewer who thinks there is a tragically small amount of modern films that treat their stories and characters with genuine tenderness and compassion (I certainly feel this way), this is a film you need to see.
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