War doesn’t create democracy.
“Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors.” Baba (Homayon Ershadi) is worried that his 12-year-old son Amir (Zekeria Ebrahimi) is not living up to expectations, and this advice, from Baba’s friend Rahim (Shaun Taub), is hardly soothing. But, as The Kite Runner insists, even if Baba could make his boy perfectly courageous and honest, outside forces, whether good or bad, inevitably affect even the most careful plans for the future.
The movie, based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, begins in 2000. Having escaped Afghanistan during the 1979 Soviet invasion, an adult Amir (Khalid Abdalla) now lives in San Francisco, a longtime doctor and now, a published writer—copies of his new book, A Season for Ashes, arrive at his home as the film starts. Though he is supported by his wife, infinitely patient fellow immigrant Soraya (Atossa Leoni), Amir is haunted by memories of Kabul. His distress is only enhanced when Rahim calls one day, saying he should “come home.” Because and despite the fact that Afghanistan is beset by the Taliban’s “very bad time,” Rahim insists, “There’s a way to be good again.” The phone call triggers a flashback, as the film explains why Amir is so reluctant to go back.
Back in 1978, young Amir is a champion kit flyer, renowned among his peers, but falling just a tad short of his father’s complete approval (“There’s something missing in that boy,” he grumbles to Rahim). Because he apparently does not reflect the masculine “colors” Baba desires, Amir struggles daily to live up to expectations, projecting his frustrations onto his best friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmidzada), 12-year-old son of Baba’s longtime servant. Their class difference exacerbates Amir’s anxieties about his own status, as fellow Pashtun classmates tease him about his friendship with a Hazara boy. And it doesn’t help that Hassan is also a superb kite runner: during kite flying contests, he has an uncanny knack for scouting downed kites and retrieving them as emblems of Amir’s triumphs, further underlining Hassan’s agility, nobility, and loyalty.
All these qualities are put to a test when Hassan is raped by a trio of local bullies. Using him as a way to get back at Amir (who has just won another kite fight), tall and imperious Assef (Elham Ehsas) corners Hassan in an alley and challenges him to give over the kite he’s just run down. Hassan will not give up this sign of his devotion to Amir, and so, suffers horrific consequences. Worse, Amir witnesses the start of the assault, but panics and runs away to hide rather than protect his friend. The scene has garnered some sensational news coverage (especially in stories about the young actors being moved from Afghanistan to United Arab Emirates, out of fear for their safety at the hands of community members who equate acting with identity), but Hassan’s trauma is left disturbingly unrepresented. The focus remains on Amir’s guilt and resentment as the servant boy remains subsidiary to his story. (It’s telling in another way that U.S. news stories about the move focus on the relief expressed by Paramount Vantage executives.)
This focus on Amir makes narrative sense, as his flashback and eventual redemption structure the film. Still, the film offers enough visual cheats to underscore Assef’s villainy, and so, look forward to his reappearance as a Taliban tough. This particular monstrosity is both sensational and familiar for Western audiences, generalizing the Taliban’s brutality and rigidity into an easily recognizable perversion. By comparison, Amir’s mostly passive bad behavior looks innocuous.
That’s not to say the film lets Amir off any hook. His childish efforts to rid himself of the sign of his guilt—Hassan—include his suggestion that Baba turn out his servants (dad refuses, and rebukes Amir to boot) and a harrowing scene where he throws pomegranates at Hassan. As the fruits splat blood-red on Hassan’s chest, Amir essentially begs him to fight back, to punish Amir for his moral and emotional failures. Hassan, ever decent, will not, and so Amir is left to punish himself.
When the Soviets invade, Baba and Amir escape to America, while Hassan and his father are left to fend for themselves among sworn ethnic enemies. In California, Baba works in a gas station to support his son’s education, and so help to color in professional success, if not precisely ethical or gendered success. But if Baba rejects Amir’s “storytelling,” Rahim encourages it, and so the eventual book-unto-film becomes one of those meta-exercises in redemption, revisiting the past in order to construct a survivable present.
And so, as much as Hassan becomes an emblem of Amir’s lost innocence, homeland, and capacity to “be good,” he is also the father of Amir’s chance for redemption, a boy reportedly kidnapped by the Taliban. Like the source novel, Marc Forster’s film is frequently contrived and melodramatic. On his return to Kabul, Amir confronts a troubling continuum between then and now, as the bully of his youth has turned Taliban (now played by Abdul Salam Yusoufzai). “I feel like a tourist in my own country,” he says, one of several observations that might have been written for a Lifetime movie.
That’s not to say the concept of alienation isn’t crucial to The Kite Runner‘s basic argument, which goes something like this: underclasses suffer and the privileged classes get away with murder. Unfortunately, while the film points out this dynamic, it doesn’t necessarily challenge it. The representation of Amir’s pain and regret overwhelms any suffering by Hassan, whose status as symbol of his master’s agony is even more depressing than his literal physical abuse. The movie damns the villains, saves the artist, and glosses over the politics that are least appealing for a wide audience.