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Friday, Jan. 12, 2001

'EAST IS EAST'

Curry on my wayward sons


Culture clash comedy is a shtick often brought to the big screen, but its success depends heavily on the details. For "East Is East," the particulars lie in the U.K.-Asian community of Manchester,circa 1971. Focusing on first-generation Pakistani immigrant George Khan, his British wife Ella and their seven offspring, "East Is East" feeds on the ironies of assimilation.

Director Damien O'Donnell may be from Dublin, but he's working off a script by Ayub Khan-Din, whose Pakistani father owned a fish and chip shop just like George Khan in the film. Rather like Spike Lee's nostalgic "Crooklyn," "East Is East" is a humorous recollection of childhood in a specific time and place, as much as it is an exploration of family tensions and ethnic identity.

Veteran actor Om Puri ("Gandhi") gets the meatiest role here, and he lays into it with zest. As Khan, he's a patriarch with an attitude, dictating his own Muslim mores to his kids. At the same time he neglects to notice that he has led a nontraditional life himself, having married non-Muslim Ella (Linda Bassett) and relocated to the other side of the globe. His attempts to force his sons into traditional arranged marriages seem like denial.

His children, however -- with the exception of the devout Maneer (Emil Marwa) -- are more attracted to the freedoms on offer in '70s Britain. Trouble begins when eldest son Najir (Ian Aspinall) flees an arranged marriage at the last minute and is disowned by his dad as a result. The other boys foresee a similar fate in their future, especially disco-hopping Tariq (Jimi Mistry), whose blond girlfriend Stella (Emma Rydal) will never find favor with his father: "It's not fair," moans Stella, "I like curry and all!" Like his father, though, Tariq's rejection of his roots also seems a form of denial as he yells at George, "I'm not marrying a f***ing Paki!"

"East Is East" treads a line between family drama and comedy, largely pulling it off. It's best when it does both at once, like in an exquisitely strained meeting for an arranged marriage in the family living room. Tariq and his brother Abdul (Ravi James), already not happy to be there, go pale when they see their soon-to-be-fiancees lift their veils and reveal faces that could stop clocks. It nails the milieu in idiosyncratic detail also, as when a theater owner changes his Bollywood flick mid-reel to please a preferred customer, to the howls of a packed house.

While the film's best jokes arise out of the situation, a bit too much of the humor is pretty lazy scatology. There are at least four urination scenes, a pointless vagina joke and an endless bit on circumcision that's sub-"South Park." Having the sole girl in the family talk like a trucker ("Frig off, you bloody witch!") may be a subversion of the demure Asian female stereotype, but rude language itself is not particularly funny.

The script's reliance on foul-mouth humor and a wise-cracking family gives it a bit too much of a sitcom feel. This feeling is reinforced by the film's climactic monologue, when Ella finally stands up to her husband's tirades. The scene is shot conventionally and seems far too script-doctored for words that should be pouring out in rage and frustration.

Context is indeed everything, though. For British audiences with a specific set of assumptions and ideas regarding Pakistanis, this will no doubt be a very funny and taboo-busting film. (Even more so for the younger U.K. Asian community.) For an international audience, though, people might be left scratching their heads as to the significance of Enoch Powell (an anti-immigrant politician), the Indo-Pakistani war, or why the kids are furtively frying up bacon and sausage while their father is away.

In the end, it's Om Puri's show, and he really fired both barrels for this one, turning in a performance that earned him a Best Actor award from BAFTA. At times, his blustering fractured English borders on caricature (during the circumcision of his youngest son: "It's his bloody tickle-tackle, it has to be cutting!"), but the humor gradually gives way to a harder, crueler edge, as he berates his kids to wear saris or attend religious lessons. This makes for a blisteringly hot performance, but also one that is at times too heavy for a comedy. When George beats his wife and screams, "You talk to me like that again, I'll kill you dead, you bloody bitch, and burn your entire family," a line has been crossed. No longer can he be seen as a lovable fool, but only as a dangerous ogre.

"East Is East" may cram too much into one film for its own good, but it's still an entertaining, illuminating look at generational and cross-cultural tensions. Showing just how fast times do change, though, the arranged-marriage jokes would have been a lot more poignant here in Japan a mere decade ago.

"East Is East (Boku no Kuni, Papa no Kuni)" opens Jan. 20 at Ebisu Garden Cinema.


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