Sunday, April 01, 2007

Nair stays true to "Namesake"; Godzilla meets comedy in "The Host"

Sorry for the long absence - I took time off in March to do a lot of reassessment of everything. And although I saw "The Namesake" a while ago, it took me some time to write a review. The ones that are closer to my heart are always the hardest ones to write. But anyway, I'm back, and here is...


directed by Mira Nair
starring Kal Penn, Irfan Khan, Tabu, Jacinda Barrett, Zuleikha Robinson
based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri

I almost wish I hadn’t read The Namesake before seeing the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter; it’s actually quite good. But it’s hard for me to see any literary adaptation as a film first and foremost, rather than as an adaptation, especially if I have any attachment to the book—notwithstanding my firm belief that an overly literal-minded attachment to a book can kill any chance a film has of standing on its own. The key is to remain absolutely faithful to the spirit of the book, which requires a certain amount of fidelity—but not too much—to its letter. The correct balance varies widely from one book to the next.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake isn’t the most difficult novel to adapt in this respect, though it certainly isn’t the easiest, either, given that most of its narrative is conveyed through the internalized perspectives of its central characters. By most measures, the film gets the balance admirably right. To be sure, in its broad brushstrokes the story is one we’ve seen before, though that doesn’t rob it of its basic resonance. It’s a tale of displacement and diaspora, at once universal and particular, both global and peculiarly American. It details the struggle of immigrants to adapt to an alien society without losing their original cultural identity and the struggle of their offspring to reconcile their fractured inheritance of that identity with their own desire to fit in among their peers, free of conflicting cultural baggage.

“The Namesake” begins by tracing the journey of displaced Bengalis Ashok and Ashima Ganguli (beautifully played by veteran Indian actors Irfan Khan and Tabu), a couple linked through an arranged marriage who only come to know each other once they move to the United States. There Ashok becomes a successful professor of engineering, and he and Ashima have a son, Gogol (Kal Penn), named for Ashok’s favorite author, and a daughter, Sonia (Sahira Nair). As the children grow up, the narrative shifts focus largely to Gogol, who changes his name and gradually distances himself from his family by, among other things, becoming romantically involved with an upper-middle-class WASP (Jacinda Barrett in a hideously unflattering blond wig) and embracing her serenely privileged lifestyle—if not her casual, unselfconscious sense of entitlement. Tragic events pull him back to the heart of his family and cause him to reevaluate his attitude towards his Indian roots. Yet as he comes closer to accepting his compound heritage—even pursuing a romance with a fellow first-generation Bengali American (Zuleikha Robinson)—he learns there are no easy answers to the conundrum of being, to borrow an academic phrase quoted in the book, an “ABCD” (American-born confused deshi).

Though the screenplay is on the whole remarkably faithful to Lahiri’s novel, it obviously had to make some compressions and omissions to fit within standard movie length. Most of these were judiciously chosen, though I was a bit startled (more at the time than in retrospect) to see Gogol’s entire college experience entirely elided. However, there were also some changes that I do not think were necessary and that do alter the flavor of the narrative. In the novel, Ashok and Ashima come to the United States in the late 1960s and settle in the greater Boston area. The movie pushes the time frame to roughly a decade later and places the Gangulis in New York.

Why is that such a big deal, you may ask. I’ll admit part of my grievance is purely subjective. I have a deep personal connection to the book, in large part because the story of the parents Ganguli in so many ways tracks the life-story of my own parents—even though my parents are Korean, not Indian, and their marriage wasn’t arranged. Like Ashok and Ashima, my parents were part of the great wave of Asian scientists and professionals (and their accompanying families) who settled permanently in this country following the change in U.S. immigration laws in 1965. They came to Cambridge, Mass, so my dad, like Ashok, could get a Ph.D in engineering. (Gogol and I were even born in the same hospital in Cambridge, though my parents waited much longer than the Gangulis to have a child; interestingly, by bumping the story up a decade, the movie makes Gogol more of my peer, born in exactly the same year as me.) Much of the early part of The Namesake brought to mind my parents’ stories of grad student life in Cambridge circa 1970, while Gogol’s college years at Yale recalled my own memories of the place when I was a grad student there. New York in the 1980s and ’90s strikes no such chord with me. To be fair, the movie isn’t interested in evoking the sense of a particular locale or period so much as the more broadly recognizable experience of new immigrants in a foreign (and not particularly hospitable) land.

Still, something does seem to be lost that goes beyond a mere personal nostalgia factor. The quality of Lahiri’s writing that distinguishes her from others who have tackled similar subject matter is her attention to detail—from the names of particular books, foods, songs, or trips that shape her characters’ daily lives, to something as passing as Ashok’s concern that Gogol’s girlfriend Maxine park her car in their driveway rather than in the street because it’s safer. (“I’ll do it,” Gogol says, “irritated by his parents’ perpetual fear of disaster”—a wonderful line that encapsulates the stark difference Gogol feels, without analyzing, between his own parents and Maxine’s, who never seem to worry about anything.) It’s these details that ground Lahiri’s fiction and make her account of the immigrant experience ring so true. And it’s these kinds of details that inevitably get glossed over, modified, or rearranged in a film. Characterization becomes a little thinner as a result, especially for the supporting characters; Gogol’s second major love interest, Moushumi, is given particularly short shrift, her complex inner conflicts and back history flattened into an overly simplistic and unsatisfying explanation for her actions.

Not that Nair doesn’t have a savvy eye of her own for the finer details of the Indian immigrant experience, as she’s shown in her previous films. “The Namesake” is, in its own way, as sensitively observed a depiction of that experience as any that’s come along in a long while. It benefits from wonderfully nuanced and sympathetic performances by Khan and Tabu, as the parents who negotiate their displacement with a grace and dignity that successfully captures Lahiri’s palpable respect for that generation. The sequence in which Gogol reluctantly brings Maxine home to meet his parents—a pleasant and polite enough encounter on the surface, but fraught with undercurrents of cross-cultural tension—is simply perfect, owing in large part to Khan and Tabu. Their demeanor and expressions as Max makes her friendly overtures to them are so telling and yet so subtle, they made me cringe in my seat.

Penn’s Gogol, by contrast, is initially much more overtly petulant and tiresomely rebellious than my impression of his character from the book, but as Gogol matures the actor tries gamely to add shadings and layers to the sulky, disaffected first generationer. Maybe a little too hard; his performance on the whole is more workmanlike than inspired, though his earnestness does succeed in dispelling the lingering ghosts of Kumar and Van Wilder. Ultimately, what emerges is a convincing, if somewhat overly edited portrait of a family suspended between cultures, with each member doing his or her best to develop as integrated an identity as possible. As such, the film bears the stamp of a director and a writer who understand this experience firsthand—and who thus understand that it can be both rich and bittersweet.


Also saw:


directed and written by Bong Joon-ho
starring Song Kang-ho, Byeon Hie-bong, Bae Du-na, Park Hae-il, Ko Ah-sung

As movies go, this one is campy as all hell, but that’s what makes it fun. The premise is classic monster sci-fi, though it’s also inspired by a real-life incident: At the direction of an American supervisor, a Korean lab technician empties gallons of highly toxic chemicals down a drain that empties into the Han River. In due course an amphibious monster (in Korean, a gwaemul, the original title of the movie) emerges from the river to feed on the ample supply of humans on its shores. Some it gobbles up right away (the scene of its first rampage is a hoot); others it carries off to its lair, located deep underground in the Seoul sewer systems, to save for later consumption. One of the latter unfortunates is a plucky and resourceful thirteen-year-old schoolgirl named Hyun-seo Park (Ko Ah-sung). Her abduction inspires her family of misfits—a dim-witted father Gang-du (Song Kang-ho), a grandfather (Byeon Hie-bong) who owns a food stand by the river, an aunt (Bae Du-na) who happens to be a championship archer with a bad habit of hesitation, and a university-educated but perpetually drunk and unemployed uncle (Park Hae-il)—to sail to her rescue. Along the way, they’re impeded as much by the incompetence of the South Korean government and the political maneuvering of the overbearing U.S. as they are by the creature’s own speed and ferocity.

Notwithstanding its scattershot social and political satire, “The Host” is not a movie you’re supposed to take seriously. It certainly doesn’t take itself seriously, and some audiences may not know what to make of its frequently tongue-in-cheek tone and its random comic yuks, like the family’s exaggerated grief when they initially assume Hyun-seo is dead, or the random shot of a homeless man picking his nose as wildly dramatic events unfold before him. (One particularly hilarious scene that takes a not-so-subtle jab at the SARS scare plays absolutely no part in advancing the overall plot.) If you can appreciate the filmmakers' brand of humor, you’ll find it makes the genuine thrills and chills that much more enjoyable.



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