OSAMA is Missing

DVD Release of the Week: What draws many people to films from Hong Kong (and to a lesser extent Korea and Japan) are the wild action sequences. So to many people in the U.S., Canada, and Europe, Asian films as a whole = action. As a result, quieter films are shuffled off to the general arthouse ghetto, where 10 or 12 quiet Asian films (including those from China, Taiwan, and Iran) have lived each year in cinemas across the so-called “Western” world.

Where, then, does a quiet film from Afghanistan fit? An improbable winner of the most recent Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, OSAMA sneaked out in limited release in the U.S. earlier this year. Last year it flitted from Cannes to other film festivals (including Denver and AFI Fest in Los Angeles, where I saw it). Though highly regarded by many reviewers, OSAMA is not the easiest film to recommend.

The Taliban forbids women to work. Desperate and starving, a family of three women (mother, grandmother, and daughter) decides that the youngest must pass as a boy and get a job. The girl (Marina Golbahari) is just 12 years old and is placed into an impossible situation. She cannot refuse to help her mother and grandmother — they are facing death. But if her subterfuge is discovered, she faces a death sentence herself. Her situation becomes even more desperate when she is taken against her will to a school of religious training for boys.

Part of the heartbreak is that the young girl (called “Osama” in her fake identity as a boy) is, in fact, a young girl and does not act like a miniature adult, as Hollywood might demand. She is perpetually frightened; the argument can easily be made that she is a product of the Taliban-ruled environment in which she lives. She is completely non-assertive and entirely fragile.

That’s the other reason why it’s not easy to watch or recommend OSAMA. The eyes of the young title character look like those of a squirrel paralyzed on the highway just before a semi-truck flattens it. You keep waiting and hoping that somehow O. Henry will write her out of the predicament she faces. And then you remember that O. Henry is dead.

Writer and director Siddiq Barmak frames the story with poignant, unsentimantal touches that display a sense of artistic vision. His film need no longer fly under the radar; it is available to a wider audience starting April 27 with the release of MGM’s Region 1 DVD. Recommended as a rental for discerning viewers.

Hong Kong DVD Release News: Asian DVD Guide reports that the Edko edition of ONG BAK does not have English subtitles. Thousands, including myself, wept openly at the news.

Box Office News: Tony Scott’s action flick MAN ON FIRE (with Denzel Washington) narrowly beat out the comedy 13 GOING ON 30 (with Jennifer Garner) for the top spot in the U.S.

KILL BILL dropped to #3 with an decline of 58%. Way down at #27, SHAOLIN SOCCER grossed another $31,400 as it expanded its theater count by four (to a total of 10 theaters), with modest total returns of $169,000.

Four Hollywood flicks are set to compete this coming Friday: ENVY (horrible advance word of mouth on this Ben Stiller/Jack Black comedy), GODSEND (problems with a clone of a dead kid, with Greg Kinnear and Robert DeNiro), LAWS OF ATTRACTION (romantic comedy starring Pierce Brosnan and Julianne Moore) and MEAN GIRLS (comedy with a script by Saturday Night Live’s Tina Fey). Right now, the last is the only one that sounds worth the risk of a ticket.

Film Festival Spotlight: Los Angeles fans can plan for the opening of VC FilmFest 2004, The Visual Communications Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film & Video Festival. The fest opens Thursday, April 29 with the screening of a restored print of Wayne Wang’s CHAN IS MISSING (an excellent nugget of a film) and closes on Thursday, May 6 with Takeshi Kitano’s ZATOICHI, with many more features, shorts, and seminars.

Screenings: Laid my father to rest this weekend, so not much in a mood to watch (or concentrate on) movies. Next week will be better.

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