Is there a way to be good again? The Kite Runner, adapted from the best-selling novel by the same name, says ‘yes’ wholeheartedly. It is a simple and elegant tale of redemption, loyalty and atonement, told in an emotional manner by director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) whose specialty lies in balancing the maudlin. Amir, an Afghan émigré and a 30-something novelist, is the flawed protagonist who is given the chance to right the betrayal of a childhood best-friend.
The film opens in modern day San Francisco, and immediately jumps to 1970s Kabul, amidst political unrest and imminent Soviet invasion. Amir is of the privileged Pashtun class, growing up in the home of the wealthy widower, Baba (played by the brilliant Homayoun Ershadi). Baba is a powerful businessman, respected by the community and politically outspoken on both the mullahs and the communists. Shy, withdrawn, and verily spineless, Amir craves Baba’s respect and love more than anything.
His only friend is Hassan, the son of the family servant and from the lowly Hazara class. They are best friends, spending afternoons watching westerns dubbed in Dari, flying kites, and Amir even reads to his illiterate friend. Hassan, a paragon of boyhood virtue, is loyal and brave, acting as Amir’s bodyguard, fending off bullies with a ready slingshot. Amir loves his friend, although in his self-centered way, and Hassan is unconditionally devoted to him; there is wordless, inexplicable delight in his eyes when Amir carves ‘Amir and Hassan, sultans of Kabul’ in a tree.
We cynics know that this idyllic friendship cannot last. Jealousy soon enters the picture; Amir overhears Baba comparing him with Hassan and pronouncing Amir lacking. This is further exacerbated by Baba’s show of kindness to Hassan on his birthday – letting him sit shotgun in his new mustang, effectively ‘dethroning’ Amir. He also presents Hassan with a kite of his choice at a famous kite master’s studio while the envious Amir looks on. Hassan’s goodliness only serves to further irritate Amir who goads him into hitting a sleeping dog with a slingshot. Amir asks Hassan, “Do you have to be so holy all the time?” Yes, he does. Intelligent and sensitive, he’s a martyr, and a stand-in for the innocent lives lost in Afghanistan.
Thus, it seems completely apropos that the day of Amir’s greatest victory, (he earns Baba’s respect by winning a kite flying competition) requires great sacrifice from Hassan who offers it without complaint. The bullies that Hassan fended off so many times catch up with him in a dark alley and offer him a malevolent bargain. Give up the winning kite or else. Hassan loyally chooses ‘or else’ and (like Afghanistan itself) is brutally raped.
Hidden, Amir watches, then flees instead of coming to Hassan’s aid. The worst is yet to come; repulsed and unable to come to terms with his own cowardice, Amir finds a way to force Hassan and his father to leave his father’s service. In one of the most visceral images in both the book and the film, Amir pelts Hassan with pomegranates demanding that he strike back, calling him a coward. Projection, anyone? Pomegranates, like fleshy rocks, explode and stain Hassan a bloody red. Yet he refuses to defend himself against Amir. In fact, he crushes a pomegranate on his head in a show of heartbreaking submission and unconditional love – the pomegranate pulp trickles down his face, foretelling of more sacrifices to come.
Paying the price of his betrayal, Amir grows up a haunted and hollow adult in California, where his father and he relocate following the Soviet invasion of Kabul. We’re given a glimpse into the lives of Afghani immigrants – especially interesting is the depiction of tigers gone toothless. Many important émigrés — politicians, generals, businessmen — have not adjusted well to their exile and speak in broken English. This is where Foster’s decision to have the early parts of the film in Dari, subtitled in English, shines – the difficulty of moving to a foreign country is evident in the struggle with language. Indeed, the transition to America is a believable one. Baba himself runs a gas station, his health is failing, and only a trace of his dauntless ferocity remains, although he is no less dignified.
An appealing Khalid Abdalla portrays the conflicted Amir with sympathy. He goes through the motions in life, although he is now settled and an established author. He will not find redemption in America; he must return to the source for atonement. A slightly ridiculous climax and denouement await him, but this does not matter. We do not pick apart our fairy tales.
What The Kite Runner hopes to do, it achieves. It sets out to communicate to viewers that personal atrocities can be redeemed, and despite suffering, there is goodness in the world. If the tale is entirely too simplistic, it is because it seeks to be a parable. There are martyrs and villains, with clearly delineated roles and even the complex characters are mostly two dimensional. The bleakness of the Taliban period following the liberation from Soviet invasion is briefly addressed via the devastated landscape and a gruesome public stoning of an adulterous couple. But this is not a political film; the devastation of Kabul, though conveyed clearly, is but the backdrop for the camera to focus on the story of personal salvation.
As such, the kite is the film’s central symbol turned metaphor. As an activity connected to childhood, that makes a terrestrial object take flight, it signifies a sense of innocence and possibility, but what was once a joyous game became a brutal test of loyalty and decency with Amir and Hassan. Competitive kite flying, once a tradition in Afghanistan, was banned during the Taliban regime. The film hints that when kite flying returns to Afghanistan, the war-torn country can truly heal. Some of the most visually arresting scenes in the movie are the kite flying sequences – where children dance an exquisite choreography to wind and string and the kites respond in the air, dramatically swooping, soaring.
The Kite Runner is a film that is well suited for the small screen, especially for those who have read the book. The DVD features enrich the viewing experience by providing literary context and satisfying viewers who like to compare the original source material to the film. Not having seen it in theatres, I am unsure if it was originally introduced by author Khaled Hosseini with a public service announcement. However, the DVD gives the viewer the option to watch the PSA in which the author exhorts viewers to donate to non governmental organizations that benefit the “building of a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan.”
Other DVD special features include: Commentary with the director, author and screenwriter, “Words from The Kite Runner, “Images from The Kite Runner, and the Trailer. The commentary is largely conversational and doesn’t add much to the film. “Words from The Kite Runner sounds as though the viewers have a Dari lesson ahead of them, but actually focuses on the book and how much was altered in the screenplay. Viewers can discover that the story that Amir wrote about the man who cried pearls, is an actual a story that Hosseini wrote when he was 10.
“Images from The Kite Runner focuses on the production of the film itself and Marc Foster as a director. It includes casting footage of the three child actors, which is nice insider look. The powerhouse of a soundtrack is discussed, and Foster shares his decision to use a Spanish composer, which “imparts heat” along with some Afghani music.
For all its simplicity and emotional indulgence, The Kite Runner is a pleasure to view. It is a sensitive, kind adaptation of a well-loved book and has well crafted DVD features that help extend the message of what is essential to human existence: hope.