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Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Stopping short, or going all the way

Bend It Like Beckham

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Gurinder Chadha
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

Divine Intervention

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Elia Suleiman
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Arabic and Hebrew
Currently showing

The past few years have seen the British-Asian music scene score global success with artists such as Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawnhey and Asian Dub Foundation, and many have wondered if U.K.-Asian cinema could be far behind. Along comes "Bend it Like Beckham," a comedy of cultural confusion by Gurinder Chadha ("Bhaji on the Beach") that was a massive hit in the United Kingdom last year, and now gets to test its legs in an away game as it opens in Japan. The question is: Will it score?

News photo
Elia Suleiman in "Divine Intervention"
News photo
Parminder Nagra in "Bend It Like Beckham"

That's a tough call. Despite the prominent use of Becks in the film's ads (the Japanese title is "Beckham ni Koi Shite [Falling in Love with Beckham]"), the word will soon get out that he's not actually in the film, only an imaginary friend and icon to Jess Bhamra (Parminder Nagra), the film's soccer-obsessed heroine. At its core, "Bend It" seeks its laughs in the generational gap faced by any semi-assimilated immigrant population (see "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") and that's a scenario barely understood in Japan, where "assimilation" is about as common as honest politicians.

Will young women here comprehend the plight of Jess, a tomboy-ish high-school senior who's prevented from kicking a ball around in the park by her conservative Indian mom? ("And you don't even want to learn how to cook dal!" laments Mom, in one of many jokes that lost something in the subtitles.) In a society where gender roles are more often willingly conformed to than imposed, it may be a stretch. Ditto for the struggle between Asian tradition and Western modernity in youth lifestyle choices: That's a battle that seems like old news indeed to Japanese teens.

One gets the feeling that Tokyo audiences may be more sympathetic to Mrs. Paxton (Juliet Stevenson), whose daughter Jules (Keira Knightley), also a budding athlete, befriends Jess and gets her to join a women's soccer team. Mrs. Paxton's opposition to girls playing sports is not a question of tradition, it's just an un-ladylike activity; as she puts it, "There's a reason why Sporty Spice is the only one who hasn't got a lad." While Jess' mom frets about her daughter kissing white boys -- like her coach, Joe, played by Jonathan Rhys-Meyers -- Mrs. Paxton worries that Jules may be a dyke.

Chadha plays with these dichotomies to impart some easy moral lessons in tolerance and broadmindedness, while also drawing some light humor from the cultural and gender roles that the kids rebel against. But her film has a pat, overly didactic nature to its tale that prevents it from ever really taking off. The best comedy -- as anyone who's seen, say, Ali G. or "South Park" can attest -- can't afford to be too good-natured or politically correct. "Bend It" needs a little zaniness, a little edge to its humor, the freedom to spin a little out of control, to bend it. As is, it's a mildly entertaining affair, but -- surprisingly, for a film of Indian flavor -- lacking in spice.

Palestinian director Elia Suleiman's "Divine Intervention," on the other hand, has no fear of going straight to the edge and over. There's a surreal madness in the film's attempt to reflect the impossibility of "normal life" under the conditions of the Israeli occupation. This is a film that thinks nothing of taking Manal Khader, the director's lover (both in real life and in the film), and having her stride through an Israeli army checkpoint with the cyberpunk swagger of Trinity in "The Matrix," blasting down the guard towers through the sheer force of her cool. Or having the director himself, playing a character named "E.S.," toss an apricot pit out the window of his car, only to have it improbably detonate an Israeli tank.

"Divine Intervention" winds through an eclectic series of vignettes, some more comprehensible than others, to express the seething tension and frustration all Palestinians experience living under occupation. There's Santa Claus fleeing a gang of angry youths in Nazareth, dropping his sack of gifts as he flees across the dehydrated scrub; there's the guy who makes a point of throwing his garbage bags into the neighbor's garden every day; there are the lovers, E.S. and Manal, who live in Jerusalem and Ramallah respectively, and are only able to meet in a checkpoint parking lot; and there are the scowling Israeli soldiers, who wonder if they should stop a pink balloon with a picture of a grinning Yasser Arafat on it from floating past their checkpoint.

Suleiman has a definite absurdist streak, though his deadpan approach to visual jokes -- usually in long, one-shot tableaux -- is closer to Jacques Tati than Monty Python, a style that may try the patience of some. Most of the jokes have an allegorical side as well, like when a French tourist asks an Israeli policeman for directions to the Dome of the Rock, and the cop rousts a blindfolded Palestinian prisoner from the back of his van to show her the way.

The film's best sequence is when a "Matrix"-esque Palestinian ninja, masked by a kaffiyeh, descends from the sky and proceeds to decimate a group of armed Israeli settlers. This bravura sequence -- in which the flying fedayeen catches bullets in mid-air and spectacularly blows up a helicopter -- is clearly taking the piss out of Hollywood flicks, which all too often have "Arab terrorists" receiving an ass-kicking at the hands of an action-superman. There's something depressing about it, though, that cinematic revenge fantasy is the one last vent for frustrations that have no apparent political or social voice. Still, better that we get "poetic terrorism" -- as Hakim Bey calls art that seeks to change reality -- than the nihilism of Hamas martyrs.

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