Part 3: The Sixth Sense to Fight Club (August – October 1999)

Director: Damien O’Donnell
Film: East Is East
Studio: Miramax
Cast: Om Puri, Linda Bassett, Jordan Routledge
MPAA rating: R
First date: 1999

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East Is East

Director: Damien O’Donnell

Even if it has been overshadowed by another comedy about the British Asian experience (you may have seen it — it involves soccer), East Is East is a whimsical, moving and hilarious film.

East Is East follows the familial dramas of the mixed-race Khan clan in 1970s Salford, England. These dramas include three arranged marriages, a painfully late circumcision and any number of minor rebellions. Scripted by Ayub Khan-Din, a Lancashire boy himself, from his own stage play, it’s a riotous and vibrant exploration of cultures clashing within the one family unit.

The patriarch, George “Genghis” Khan, is a Pakistani fish-and-chip shop owner who left his first wife in the old country and married a fiery Englishwoman as well. This decision comes back to haunt him in many ways. Despite George’s stubborn resistance to many of his new homeland’s customs, he is cursed with a new generation who have more than one foot firmly planted in England.

The Khan brood of six boys and one girl are a fascinating mixture of old and new world. While some of the sons are responsible and dutiful — the gentle and polite Abdul and the devoutly Muslim Maneer — others have embraced the rebellious possibilities of Swinging Salford. The cinematic style veers between these two extremes, the sombre and the jubilant.

The entire film is a mixture of high drama and low comedy, drawing mostly on the British movies and TV of the 1960s. The dramatic moments conjure the nail-biting tension of classic British kitchen sink films, the rebellious bursts have the antic energy of the Beatles’ movies — and the sexually enthusiastic Dalmatian is straight out of Benny Hill. At its best, East Is East is as clever a blend of comedy and drama as John Schlesinger’s 1963 classic Billy Liar.

The art of creating a coherent film out of so many moods lies in the smooth transitions. Little nuances in the acting performances can allow for radical changes in style without giving the viewer whiplash. Director Damien O’Donnell and his cast achieve this with ease. By infusing the comical scenes with dashes of pathos and finding levity in even the darkest moments, the entire film feels of a piece.

Much of East Is East’s success comes from the magisterial performance of Indian cinema veteran Om Puri as the tyrant George. He is completely unreasonable, constantly bullying and yet relentlessly charismatic. His good humour and a hint of self-awareness frequently creep in around the edges, sometimes diluting his tyranny, at other times only making it more absurd and dangerous.

The rest of the cast, including Linda Bassett as the long-suffering mother Ella and an assortment of young talents, is uniformly terrific. Standouts are the mischievous Archie Panjabi (later wasted as the shrewish older sister in Beckham) as the sole Khan daughter and Jordan Routledge as Sajid, the eccentric and endearing youngest child, constantly encased in a furry jacket.

For a film about multiculturalism, racism plays a curiously small part. In fact, it’s solely represented by the comical figure of old Mr Moorhouse, a grouchy Enoch Powell supporter whose complaints about “piccaninnies” have little impact on the Khans. Race may be an issue in East Is East, but the cultural tensions are mostly within the family rather than without.

Yet unlike a lot of films about cultural clash, East Is East isn’t interested in simplistic messages about tolerance. It takes the existence of multicultural society as an inevitable fact and then explores the consequences with humour and insight. There’s nothing heavy-handed about this impossibly likeable film. Politics has never been so charming. David Pullar

East Is East

Director: Regis Wargnier
Film: East-West (Est-ouest)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Oleg Menchikov, Sergei Bodrov Jr.
MPAA rating: PG-13
First date: 2000

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Director: Régis Wargnier

In a December 2008 essay, , PopMatters’ own Bill Gibron pointed out the continued over indulgence of Hollywood into the Holocaust-inspired film genre. However, the real crime here is not the abundance of films inspired by the Nazi Holocaust, but the simple fact that by concentrating only on Germany and the Nazi Party, Hollywood – and most international filmmakers for that matter – has grossly neglected film depictions of the other people, groups, events and even countries that were also involved in World War II.

Of these media lapses, none is so glaring as the infinitesimal number of films that have examined the Soviet Union during World War II. Although Communism is still a popular topic in Hollywood –The Majestic (2001), Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) and The Watchmen (2009), to name a few – there are very few noteworthy films set in and around Stalinist Russia and the Soviet Union. In the last 25 years, I can only think of four high-profile films focused on this issue – Elem Klimov’s Come and See (1985), Olli Saarela’s Ambush (1999), Regis Wargnier’s East/West (1999) and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s Enemy at the Gates (2001). Though three of these films were international collaborations – Come and See was solely produced in the USSR – none was as massive in terms of its production scale as East/West, which is perhaps why it is still one of the best World War II-era films.

Though categorized as a French film by a French director, East/West was truly an international picture as it was written by Azeri (Azerbaijan) writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, Russian writer Sergei Bodrov and Wargnier, the French director. It was also a unique film collaboration between France, Russia, Ukraine, Spain and Bulgaria. Further, though the film was in French, neither of the Russian leads, Sergei Bodrov, Jr. (son of the screenwriter) nor Igor Menshikov, knew French so they learned their lines phonetically!

When I watched East/West, I was reminded of those older, grandiose tales like Ben-Hur (1959) and Mackenna’s Gold (1969), but set around war like the modern epics, such as The English Patient (1996). The film is a rich, humanistic drama set in 1946 after the end of World War II. Though Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin was no people person, this film deals with a particular aspect of his treachery – his invitation to Russian exiles to return to their motherland after the war and join society again. It seems like a plausible idea, but Stalin had no interest in fulfilling his promise. He used this tactic to throw thousands of returned exiles in prison, execute the majority and save a few to use as “model citizens.”

One of those spared is Alexei Golovin (Menchikov), a doctor, who along with his French wife Marie (Sandrine Bonnaire) and their son, is sent to Kiev to work in a communal hospital. This marks the beginning of the end for Alexei’s relationship with his wife – while he does not like his job, his love for his country seems to trump any another feelings of disappointment and treachery. Marie on the other hand, refuses to play the game and instead of adopting the habits of those used to living in a totalitarian state – stealth, secrecy and acquiescence – she rebels and becomes vocal of her anti-Soviet misgivings.

Though not a pure anti-Communist or anti-Soviet totalitarian themed movie, East/West does present certain degrees of symbolism that represent Marie’s desire for Western “freedom” in the face of Eastern “oppression.” One such symbol is her relationship with Sasha (Bodrov Jr.), a young swimmer, who is trying to win a place on the national team for an international meet. When director Wargnier shows scenes of Sasha’s rippled body swimming against the current with Patrick Doyle’s lofty, James Horner-esque score in the background, one senses the desperation of the young swimmer fighting against oppression towards freedom.

Wargnier introduces another symbolic element in the arrival of Gabrielle (Catherine Deneuve), a French actress on tour, who visits the Soviet Union. Seeing this as an opportunity to let her story be told, Marie gets in contact with her and Gabrielle agrees to help. However, her attempts are short-lived as Marie gets arrested by the KGB for her influence on Sasha, who escapes a training camp and swims to a tanker. Soon, Sasha’s story becomes public.

Marie is sent to serve in a GULAG and spends several years in prison before being released after the death of Stalin. In a combination of Bollywood drama and A Tale of Two Cities-esque sacrifice, Alexei gives up any chance he has at leaving the Soviet Union by brokering a deal with the authorities so that his wife and child are allowed to leave the country, while he must stay.

In the end, East/West is a fine film, which will appeal to all those interested in European cinema, war-inspired movies and dramas. Its only weak point truly is its desire to be grandiose and epic, when not all of the elements are always present – basically it tries over and over again to be more like Dr. Zhivago (1965) and less just as itself. But, its greatest success is its director’s ability to take strong acting talent and a solid script and bring a story to light that most of us were unaware of and probably now, will never forget. Shyam K. Sriram

East-West (Est-ouest)