Horror movies, especially those of the J-Horror kind, often try to scare us with vengeful ghosts. The real ghosts in our lives, though, aren’t those who crawl out of TV screens but the ones who haunt our memories. These ghosts exist as regrets, and trying to exorcise them can be a long and painful process.
Directed by Marc Forster (“Neverland”), “The Kite Runner” is an adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 best seller. It’s a fantastic, deeply moving film about such regrets, and — as a line from the film puts it — the chance that “there is a way to be good again.”
The film begins in San Francisco in the year 2000. Amir (Khalid Abdallah, “United 93″), an exile from Afghanistan, is about to celebrate the publication of his first novel with his wife, Soraya (Atossa Leoni), when the phone rings. It’s an old family friend, Rahim Khan (Shaun Toub), telling Amir he must come visit him in Pakistan, immediately. By the tone of the conversation, it’s clear Amir has no choice — the past has caught up with him.
Amir recalls his childhood, and the film takes us into his past, in Kabul in the 1970s, prior to the Soviet invasion and a war that would devastate the country. This device — starting at a key point and then cutting back to tell the back story — is one that’s much over-used in art-house cinema these days — “Lust, Caution,” “Fur” and “Perfume” are three recent examples. In “The Kite Runner,” though, it’s use is legitimate: this is a story about the past haunting the present.
Amir’s childhood story seems almost like an Afghani “Stand By Me”; young Amir (Zekiria Ebrahimi) enjoys flying fighting kites with his best friend, Hassan (Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada), a servant boy the same age. (Kite fighting, where the goal is to cut your opponent’s line, is hugely popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan.) Amir is a privileged boy from the majority Pashtun tribe, while Hassan is from the lower caste Hazaras, but this doesn’t trouble them.
It doesn’t go unnoticed by others, though, and the boys are threatened by Assef (Elham Ehsas), a racist bully. Amir is passive, but Hassan protects them both. Amir’s father, Baba (Homayoun Ershadi), is a liberal man, but he upbraids his son: “A man who won’t stand up for himself won’t stand up for anything.” This is the lesson that takes Amir another two decades to learn. He fails to stand up for his friend when it matters most, and then betrays Hassan in order to not have to face his shame any longer.
When war comes to Afghanistan, Amir flees with his father, first to Pakistan, then to America. The film follows life in exile — a community of Afghan diplomats and generals who now work in flea markets and convenience stores but who still have their pride. Amir meets Soraya but also has to care for his progressively more frail and elderly father. But ultimately he must return to his past to undo his sins against Hassan and to fulfill his father’s expectations.
Without giving away too much, this means he has to return to Afghanistan, which is now controlled by the Taliban and where mindless brutality is omnipresent, to find someone. Amir must at last confront his own cowardice and somehow find the strength to rectify his mistakes. A chilling scene in a soccer stadium, where a game’s half-time is marked by Taliban with guns stoning to death a couple for “adultery,” shows us clearly the dangers he must face. (And anyone who thinks this is American movie exaggeration needs a reality check.)
“The Kite Runner” is remarkable in many ways. As a Hollywood movie (produced by DreamWorks), it dares to use nonprofessional leads and subtitles, two things considered no-no’s, but which give the film an undeniable authenticity. The casting is impeccable: Mahmoodzada, as Hassan, with his doughy face and fiercely flashing eyes, gives the most moving child performance since Enzo Staiola in “The Bicycle Thief”; Homayoun Ershadi as Amir’s father, brings an incredible dignity and sense of inner strength to his role. Shot mostly in western China, the film creates a wonderful illusion of Kabul both before and after the war. More than anything, though, “The Kite Runner” is an astoundingly constructed tale, one that will pull you in and move you profoundly.