Dir/scr Siddiq Barmak. Afghanistan-Japan-Korea-France. 2008. 92 mins.
There could be a good film hiding somewhere behind Afghan director Siddiq Barmak's tragicomic parable about his country's two main industries - war and opium. But it's not up there on the screen. This Best Foreign Film Oscar candidate is a misguided, amateurish attempt to turn a culture clash - between two lost and wounded US soldiers and the tank-dwelling family of an Afghan poppy farmer - into a Kusturica-like black comic allegory.
While the writer-director's commitment to his used and abused homeland and its inhabitants is never in doubt, Barmak's film quickly loses interest in the few character conflicts it establishes, and as its message seems as dazed and confused as its two opium-addled protagonists.
Barmak Akram's Venice title Kabuli Kid proves that it is possible to make a bittersweet Afghan comedy with international appeal; Opium War, on the other hand, has been greeted so far by embarrassed silence at Rome screenings and seems to be headed for perfunctory arthouse runs in the co-production territories of Japan, Korea and France.
Set in a remote region of Afghanistan, Opium War opens with the discovery by hard-headed, foul-mouthed peasant boy Scorpion (Samani) of a downed US helicopter. The two US marines who lie next to it turn out to be still alive though wounded, and soon bigoted white captain Don Johnson (played by award-winning refugee photographer Bussian) is holding a gun to the head of his black subordinate Joe Harris (Suba), and using him as a mule to explore the surrounding territory.
Apparently improvising much of their painful dialogue, the duo keep at a wary distance from Scorpion and his extended family, who live in an abandoned Soviet-era tank near the small poppy field which provides their livelihood - and is soon being raided by Harris and Johnson for the pain-killing highs it offers.
The forced stand-off between the two marines fades before it has been properly set up, and the conflicts among Samani's family (headed by shaggy-bearded farmer Hozouri) are no less cursory. There's resentment between his three wives, and some scenes in which his mad daughter (Golbahari) is apparently sold off to a opium traders as compensation for the bad harvest.
There are pinpoints of light: the spontaneity of the child actors, the austere beauty of these semi-desert landscapes, and Daler Nabalov's lilting woodwind soundtrack. But they come as small relief, and Barmak - whose Osama won a Golden Globe - ends up trying to glue everything together with a series of set pieces that seem to have absorbed much of the film's budget.
Haut et Court
+ 82 10 4722 5120