Sunday, July 6, 2008

The Kite Runner -- Courage and Cowardice

First published in 2003, Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner took a couple of years to attract attention. By 2005 it was the third ranked best seller in the US. In 2006 it started raking in nominations and awards. By now, if you have not read the book you must be a philistine or comatose. At this point I must confess I am a philistine. I have not read the book, so come to the movie without any major expectations.

Unlike Eragon, another much lauded book but one that should have remained on the printed page, Kite Runner transitions well to the screen with beautiful imagery, a strong plot, and realistic characters, people with depth and genuine humanity (both good and bad). This is a story of friendship and loyalty, of courage and cowardice. Above all it is a study of character and redemption.

Kite Runner starts in modern day San Francisco, before taking us back 30 years. This nonlinear plot device is unnecessary, but is used to introduce us to Amir as a writer, when he receives copies of his first published novel. Coincidentally that same day he receives a phone call from an old friend in Afghanistan that triggers the extended memory flashback and calls him home.

The plot really starts in the 70s in Kabul, and is set against a back-drop of kite running, a popular hobby among pre-teen boys. Amir is the son of a wealthy widower (Baba), and flies kites with his smaller friend and servant Hassan. In contrast to Amir, Hassan is the son of Baba's servant and is a Hazara, an ethnic group considered inferior. Yet Hassan is totally loyal to his softer, literate friend, even protecting him from bullies at much cost to himself, creating enemies along the way. One older boy in particular, Assef, has it in for them both.

After the annual kite-fight competition, Hassan runs after the free-flying kite whose string has been cut by Amir's kite (hence the name "kite runner"). Snagging the kite as the winner's trophy, he is chased by Assef and cornered in a dead-end alley. Threatened unless he gives up the kite, Hassan refuses. Unknown to him, Amir is watching secretly, afraid to show himself. When Assef is rebuffed, he resorts to beating and brutally raping Hassan. Throughout the ordeal, Hassan stays loyal to Amir, but Amir deserts him in his desperate hour of need.

Feeling the weight of guilt, Amir comes face-to-face with his cowardice on a daily basis as he sees Hassan within his household compound. This is more than he can handle. In one scene, Amir throws rotten fruit onto Hassan's chest, provoking him to retaliate. But in a beautiful response that is so reminiscent of Jesus' "turn the other cheek" ideal, Hassan picks up another fruit and rubs it on his own face. He will not stop loving his friend. Amir resorts to deception and false accusations, planting his watch in Hassan's bedroom. When confronted with theft, Hassan actually admits to it, though both he and Amir know this is untrue. Despite this moral violation, astonishingly Baba forgives him. But it is a forgiveness that Hassan's father cannot accept. In shame he takes his son and leaves the home. Amir has accomplished his desire at the cost of shaming his friend and damaging these relationships.

Kite Runner jumps ahead to 1979 when the Russians invade Kabul, and Baba and Amir have to flee for their lives. On the journey to Pakistan, in the back of a truck with a dozen other refugees, a Russian check-point forces the issue of cowardice back on center stage. A Russian soldier decides he will only let them through if he can have his way with one of the women. Standing up to the soldier, Baba courageously puts his life on the line for her and verbally challenges the soldier, calling out his shameful behavior. This juxtaposition of Baba's courage for a stranger with Amir's abandonment of his best friend highlights how even in fear we choose our response. We can stand in courage or we can run in cowardice. One leads to honor, the other to shame and guilt, and worse.

The final act occurs in the modern period. Amir and Baba are in America, where Amir has graduated from college and is pursuing his dream of writing. But even as he writes, he is still running from the memories of his moral failure. When Amir is called back to Pakistan to meet with an old friend of Baba's he learns a secret that shatters his view of his father, and radically alters his view of Hassan. Once again he is confronted with the memory of Hassan, now dead, and the ghosts he hoped were buried rise to the surface.

But Amir is given on opportunity to redeem himself by going back into Kabul to adopt Hassan's son at great peril to his own life. With the help of a friendly driver, he takes the journey back into his homeland, seeing it devastated not by the Russians, gone now, but by the Taliban and their religious imposition. Not finding the boy in the orphanage he seeks and finds him in the home of a Mullah. And there he comes face-to-face with his nemesis, Assef, now a Taliban executioner. Assef, who had raped Hassan and started the horror of this story, is raping Hassan's son. This time, though, Amir has the courage to face his fears and stand up to Assef, even if it means death. No longer can he turn a blind-eye. Though he still must bear the emotional scars of his earlier poor decision, he now can redeem something of his character and something for Hassan.

Kite Runner is a thoughtful yet sad film. Switching from Persian Dari to English, it is a foreign-American movie that feels more foreign than American. It does not resort to typical Hollywood dramatics to ply the emotions. It lets the narrative do that for itself. Working with mostly unknown actors, director Marc Forster draws strong performances, especially from the young boys. Where Kite Runner stalls is in the tiresome kite fighting sequences. There is simply too much footage of kites. It is hard to tell whose kite is whose, and it is almost impossible to see them actually cutting the string. A crisper focus on the characters would have enhanced this movie. Still, Kite Runner is a fine film, beautifully shot, with a powerful ethical message. The next time we face a choice to walk away from a friend in need, remember Amir and Hassan, and choose courageously!

Copyright ©2008, Martin Baggs

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