I was very eager to revisit this film now that it has come our way on Blu-ray and high definition. There are issues that I struggled with in my own viewing that I will discuss later in this review. In high definition this film becomes a case study in contradiction. It’s amazing how pretty a thing can be when it really isn’t very pretty at all. We are witness to bad things, but the director chooses to present these things amid a flurry of beauty. It’s a rather striking contrast, made more so on Blu-ray. It actually made for a much more effective experience, even if most of my initial feelings about the film remain unchanged.
The Kite Runner is one of those films that is extremely hard to pin down. On the surface it’s a moving story about friendship and redemption, but I have to wonder if that is really the collection of themes intended by either the original novel’s writer Khaled Hosseini or the film’s director, Marc Foster. The story begins with two young Afghan children who appear to be friends, but they are from different worlds. Hassan (Mahmoodzada) is the son of household servants. Amir (Ebrahimi) is the son of the household’s masters. Yet they appear to share a common bond and fondness for one another. We quickly learn that the friendship is one sided. Hassan pledges that he would do anything for Amir. He vows he would eat dirt if Amir asked, but adds the belief that Amir would never ask him to. Even a look at Amir’s guilt tells us that’s certainly not true. Soon Hassan is approached by bullies and asked to give up a kite he captured and promised to Amir. Rather than break his promise to his friend, he is savagely beaten and sexually molested by the bullies. We are shocked to see that Amir is witness to the entire event and does nothing. To make his sin worse, he decides he can no longer be friends with Hassan because to see him reminds him of his shame, so he accuses the boy of theft. To complete his unconditional loyalty, Hassan admits to the fictional theft to allow Amir to save face. Amir eventually flees Afghanistan as the Soviets invade. In America he becomes a successful writer and has nearly put his past behind him until he learns a startling secret about Hassan, now dead at the hands of the Taliban. In an effort to redeem himself, he decides to rescue Hassan’s son from the Taliban.
I question the idea that Amir’s actions have earned him redemption. I’m led to believe that this is a journey of courage, but I find Amir’s motives to be selfish even to the end. There can likely be no redemption for what he had done to his friend, and I find the rescue to be more about making him feel better than doing anything to make up to Hassan. It is because of this belief that I do not get the wonderful feeling that so many claim to get from The Kite Runner. The film would serve more of a purpose if it had lingered more on Hassan and allow us to see what his life was like leading up to his own death. Perhaps we could have bonded more with his son, and then the rescue would have meant more to us. Instead we are given far more attention to Amir and his rather dull life after fleeing his homeland. It is here that the film loses its focus and, for me at least, its interest.
It was suggested to me after my first viewing, where most of this review comes from, that the book does a far better job of dealing with this redemption factor that I had so much trouble with. I’m sad to say I have not yet had the opportunity to read the book. After this second viewing, I think I’m beginning to see why Amir might believe his actions have redemptive qualities to them, and certainly he is doing the right thing. There is no doubt that in this area the written word can be so much more effective. I’m sure it allows us into Amir’s mind enough so that two factors are likely very different. I suspect that in his mind Amir’s fear and feelings of self preservation allowed him to act as he did without our judging him quite so harshly. When you see what he sees on film, however, our gut reaction is to tend to hate him all the more for it because the brutality he allows to happen reaches us on a far more visceral level. Secondly, I’m sure that if we could gain some insight into Amir’s mind, as I assume the book better allows, we would see how he feels about the boy and likely feel the guilt he carries. But, movies are far different things as anyone who has gone to see a film based on their favorite work of literature will tell you. I have to judge the film on what it is as a movie, and my mind has become unchanged at the redemption issue.
To be sure the film’s location shots were extremely convincing. The film was shot in China on the other side of the mountains that separate that country from Afghanistan. The atmosphere provided in the film’s first third is a compelling one indeed. The local actors add yet another element of authenticity that serves the film well by really drawing us into the story of these two boys. Both of the children gave remarkably strong performances. Again, the film falls apart when Amir goes to America. Without the locations and local talent the film drags mercilessly until Amir’s return to rescue the boy. That climatic rescue is shortchanged, and we’re given a rather lame beating as all Amir suffers in his “courageous journey to redemption”. I have to say Amir’s beating is one of the worst choreographed beat downs in cinema history. By the time the film ends we feel as though the genius of the first third of the film was thrown away, and I, for one, felt cheated by the time it was all over. So much promise finally wasted in the end.
The Kite Runner is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. I was very disappointed in the standard DVD release of this film when it came to image. All of that’s changed with this exceptional 1080p picture through an AVC/MPEG-4 codec. I remembered there was a lack of detail and the picture was extremely muddy and soft. Now there is a brilliance that was completely lacking in the standard DVD. The natural earth hues of the locations come alive in refreshing new ways. You can see grains of sand with this transfer where there was an almost painted blur to the original. Contrast is outstanding as are black levels. It’s almost like seeing an entirely different film. When colors are allowed to shine, as in the climactic kite scene, they reveal realistic and lively reds and yellows. Even if you have the DVD, you need to upgrade to the Blu-ray. You will not believe the difference.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track is as impressive as the video. The dialog was always very clear: however, unless you can speak Dari, which is what most of the dialog is spoken in, it doesn’t really matter. Of course, there are English subtitles, so that actually catching the words isn’t as important. There are some fine moments of subtle uses of surrounds that become not so subtle during the Soviet invasion. Here your sub will come alive. The music appears reserved most of the time.
There is an audio commentary with novel writer Khaled Hosseini, director Foster, and screenwriter David Benioff. They engage in some very serious discussion that makes it impossible to listen and still follow the film. If you liked the film this track is certainly worthwhile, as they go very much in-depth in all aspects of the story and filming.
The extras are in standard definition and are exactly as they appeared on the DVD.
Words From The Kite Runner: The same three from the commentary talk more about their feelings for the story and what it meant to put it on the screen. There is a lot of overlap here with the commentary. Much of it is verbatim from the commentary.
Images From The Kite Runner: This works pretty much as a companion piece to the previous feature. Here the story isn’t so much the focus as are the locations and actually filming.
A PSA From Khaled Hosseini: The film can be viewed with this intro which is a public service announcement for nongovernmental agencies that help with the problems of countries like Afghanistan.
The video is the main reason you’re going to want to upgrade to the Blu-ray disc. This is one of those occasions when you really will see the difference. I have a friend who is convinced that high definition is a scam and that he can’t see the difference between a DVD and its hi-def release. This is one of those releases when you can show them side by side. If the party isn’t blown away by the incredible improvement here, then you must simply recommend a good optometrist. The Kite Runner is another fine example that high definition has arrived and isn’t going anywhere. “That’s what you tell people, when they ask.”