“The Kite Runner” - Marc Forster (2007)

The Kite Runner (2007), directed by Marc Foster, is based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of an Afghan boy, Amir, who escapes the violent destruction of his homeland after the fall of the monarchy and comes to live with his father in the United States. But years later he must return to Afghanistan to come to terms with the ghosts that haunt his past. Although Forster is a German-Swiss director working mostly in the United States, the film has an international cast, with mostly Afghan and Iranian performers, and the dialogue is in Dari, the dialect of Persian that is the principal language of Afghanistan.

The story takes place over three separate time periods in 1978, 1988, and 2000, with the two earlier periods presented as extended flashbacks. At the beginning of the film, Amir is a young, just-published novelist, living in California who receives a phone call from an old family friend, Rahim Khan. Rahim urges him to come to see him in Pakistan, telling him “there is a way to be good again”, and as the story progresses, those words will resonate with the major theme of the story.

Then the film shifts to an extended flashback of Amir, as a 13-year-old boy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1978. He is the son of a wealthy and well-educated financier, “Baba” (i.e. "Father"), who lost his wife in Amir’s childbirth. In those days, Afghanistan, like Iran, had a lively and relatively open society (traditionally, the two societies were similar), with women far more free to dress (hijab was not enforced), socialize, and live, than exists today in either society. Baba is an outspoken, leonine character who is disdainful of his gentle and nonconfrontational son. Amir is best friends with Hassan, the illiterate son of the family servant, and the two of them love to engage in kite-flying competitions, the goal of which is to use one’s own kite’s glass-powder-treated string to cut the string of a competitor kite so that it falls to the ground. A kite-flying team has two members, one of whom guides kite by pulling the string, while the other holds the spool and is also the “kite runner” – the person who runs after a captured kite and fetches it for the winner. Hassan almost worships the sensitive and bookish Amir and loyally stands up for and protects him whenever his friend is threatened by other boys. When they are flying kites, Hassan is the kite runner.

Although both Amir and Hassan are native Afghanis, Amir belongs to the majority Pashtun ethnic community, while Hassan belongs to the minority Hazara, which for complex reasons is subject to racist prejudice. On one occasion after Amir and Hassan have spectacularly won a citywide kite-flying competition, some older Pashtun bullies corner the kite-runner, Hassan, in an alley and rape him. Amir arrives to witness the brutality, but shamefully hides in the background, too fearful to interfere with the attack. This is the seminal event in the film, and it marks both boys. Afterwards Amir is unable to face his own cowardice, and he turns against Hassan, even falsely accusing him of stealing, which in a Moslem society is a very serious misdeed. His ultimate self-humiliation occurs when he succumbs to social custom at a party and silently shakes hands with Assef, the older boy who had raped Hassan. To resist the gesture would have been to acknowledge that he was privy to what had happened to Hassan and had merely watched.

After the Russians invade in late 1979, Amir and his father escape from Afghanistan and go to live in California. The scene shifts to another flashback period, this time in 1988, at which time Amir's father is now making a meager living by working at a gas station. Amir has just been graduated from a community college, and he meets an Afghani expatriate girl and falls in love. This part covers their courtship, which though it takes place in the new world, is still guided by very traditional Afghan customs. It may be interesting to compare these events with the courtship of another Asian immigrant young couple in The Namesake.

Finally, after more than an hour of these two flashbacks, the action returns to the “present”, in the year 2000. At this time Afghanistan is still in turmoil and in even worse circumstances, with the Taliban’s cruel and oppressive stranglehold fully established. Amir decides to accede to family-friend Rahim Khan’s request and come and see him in Pakistan. Upon arrival, Amir learns from Rahim two shocking pieces of news about his childhood friend, Hassan. First Hassan was actually his half-brother, and second Hassan and his wife have been killed by the Taliban. Hassan’s young son, Sohrab, has been removed to an orphanage. The last and only thing that Amir can do for his old friend now is to return to Afghanistan and rescue Sohrab from that oppressive society and take him back to America. Amir sets out on the journey, wearing a fake beard when he arrives in order to conform to the Taliban’s suffocating restrictions. This last part of the film is more of an action thriller, with Amir trying to dodge the Taliban thuggery and bring Sohrab out to safety. During the course of events, he witnesses another disturbingly brutal scene: the stoning of a young woman who has been accused of adultery. He even runs into Assef again, who is now a figure of some standing within the Taliban group. In the end he improbably manages to find Sohrab (who proves to have inherited his father’s mettle) and escape back to the US. In the final scenes he is shown with his new adopted, but still shell-shocked, son, Sohrab, teaching him about kite-flying. This time he is the loyal kite runner, trying to live up to the high standards set by Hassan.

The film is a good production, with a succession of high-impact, emotional scenes and fine acting throughout. The child actors are excellent, particularly Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, as Hassan, whose stubborn fidelity and good humor leave a lasting impression. Also praiseworthy are Zekeria Ebrahimi (Amir), Homayoun Ershadi (Baba), and Ali Danish Bakhtyari, in the small but important role of Sohrab. Because of the rape scene, however, the filmmakers have been criticized for underpaying the young Afghani actors and leaving them exposed to potentially violent recriminations in Afghanistan. Indeed, some of them have had to be removed from Afghanistan, after receiving threats, and Zekeria Ebrahimi has said that he now regrets ever having appeared in the film.

One of the difficulties with the narrative, which is not entirely overcome by the filmmakers upon bringing it to the screen, is the many themes that must be covered. The film has (at least) the following story themes to it:
  • Buddy story (Amir and Hassan)
  • Romance (Hassan and Soraya)
  • Political thriller
  • Father-son (Baba/Amir and Amir/Sohrab)
  • Rescue and escape thriller
  • Coming-of-age (Amir)
  • Guilt and Redemption (Amir/Hassan)
It is difficult to do justice to all of these in a two-hour film. It is the last of them, concerning guilt and redemption on the part of Amir, which is the most important. But this thread is dropped for awhile midway through the film, when the story covers Amir’s romance and marriage, and the momentum lags over this period. When it is resumed upon Amir’s return to Afghanistan, it is difficult to get a sense of Amir’s real feelings about those earlier times.

Another difficulty is the artificiality of some of the narrative events. When you see Baba start to wince slightly, you just know that he is going to die of an illness soon. Some of the side characters are just a little bit too predictable. And Assef’s reappearance is particularly artificial.

The cinematography is very skillfully done, but its Hollywood-style dynamics are ostentatious and melodramatic. The same criticism could be leveled at Slumdog Millionaire, but it seems even more evident in this case. It is not helped by an overly intrusive score, which rather than employing purely Afghani-oriented instrumentation, wrong-headedly uses traditional Western orchestration. The kite-flying scenes, which mostly employ computer graphics, seem amazing when you watch them. But I think it is no fault of the filmmakers that it is probably just too difficult to convey the real feeling of flying a kite. As it is, we just see someone pulling a string, and then cut to two kites swirling near each other up in the sky. To me, it doesn’t work.

On the whole, I recommend the film. It is that first section with the two young boys back in old Afghanistan, though, that rings truest. Hassan’s doggedly loyal friendship is irredeemable and unforgettable.
★★★