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Kite club

Simplified Runner not up to speed
By CHRIS WANGLER  |  December 12, 2007
2.5 2.5 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner | Directed by Marc Forster | Written by David Benioff based on the novel by Khaled Hosseini | With Khalid Abdalla, Homayoun Ershadi, Atossa Leoni, Shaun Toub, Sayed Jafar Macaulay Gharibzada, Zekiria Ebrahimi, Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada, and Elmad Ehsas | Paramount Vantage | 127 minutes
Marc Forster’s version of Khaled Hosseini’s gazillion-selling 2003 novel was originally slated for release in November; it was delayed when the father of one of the film’s Afghan child actors complained that the inclusion of an inflammatory rape scene could cause violent reprisals by the resurgent Taliban. Earlier this month, Paramount Vantage evacuated the four children to the United Arab Emirates. To me, this sounds like electric buzz for a film with no recognizable stars and shot mostly in the Afghan language of Dari. Even so, the threat underscores the real-world relevance of the story — if ever a movie needed watching, this would seem to be it.

The hype, as it turns out, trumps the movie. In spite of being lovingly realized and creatively cast, The Kite Runner is a simplistic adaptation of a powerful, multi-layered story. Your feeling leaving the theater might be less “I should read the book!” than “Where’s the beef?”

The story is told from the perspective of Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi), a bookish, unlikable boy growing up in vibrant 1970s Kabul. Amir fails to meet the macho expectations of his wealthy merchant father (Homayoun Ershadi) until he wins a dramatic kite battle high over the snow-dusted rooftops of the city. Acting as his kite runner is his best friend and servant Hassan, an illiterate but preternaturally good boy from the socially inferior Hazara class.

In the controversial scene, Hassan is raped by a sadistic bully (Elham Ehsas) from the same dominant Pashtun class as Amir. More noteworthy than the rape itself, which is subtly implied with the unstrapping of a belt and some drops of blood, is its tragic aftermath. Hassan, portrayed with a brilliant mix of innocence and resilience by Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzad, not only carries on unscathed but remains loyal to his friend, who witnessed the whole thing and did nothing.

Amir’s shame leads to another act of betrayal that ultimately exiles Hassan and his father from the house, reinforcing the class barriers that dominate this society. When Soviet tanks roll in, Amir and his father flee to America, where their secrets will consume them for 20 years.

It would be unfair to fault Forster (the next Bond movie director) or screenwriter David Benioff for the barn-door-sized gaps that follow. Faced with the challenge of condensing 30 years of dense narrative, they focus the rest of the film on Amir’s guilt, cutting out most of the political (and religious) themes. To preserve the first-person narration, some key developments — e.g., the tragic fate of Hassan and the abduction of his orphaned son, Sohrab, into Taliban servitude — aren’t shown but only mentioned in passing.

The climax finds a grown-up Amir (Khalid Abdalla from United 93) back in Afghanistan, now a dreary backwater. His attempts to rescue Sohrab from the hands of a depraved Taliban official seems contrived, like a PC version of Rambo raiding a POW camp.

As Hosseini himself has acknowledged, the success of his novel is linked to book clubs. And that’s maybe the best way to look at the movie, as a kind of ideal book-club selection — set in a distant locale, not particularly meaningful, with dark themes blunted by an American-style message of hope. If this represents the extent of our interest in the world’s war-torn regions, then Forster’s Kite Runner is, like, a masterpiece.

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