Foreign films always have graced American movie screens. But it was Roberto Benigni’s powerful film, Life Is Beautiful, that brought foreign films into everyday cinematic discourse. Although other foreign films such as the German Run Lola Run have garnered acclaim in America, none have reached the status of Benigni’s masterpiece. However, East Is East (Miramax) will change that.
The hilarious British film earned accolades from the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and won London’s Evening Standard Award for Best British film of the year – and for good reason. Similar to Life Is Beautiful, East Is East explores a serious topic but constantly incorporates laugh-out-loud moments to break the stoic undertones of the film.
The movie explores an inter-ethnic marriage and the struggles the family faces. Ella (Linda Bassett), a quick-tongued British woman, has been married to George (Om Puri), a Pakistani immigrant, for 25 years. They live in a working-class neighborhood in Manchester instead of the nearby town that thrives with Pakistani culture. Their six children – five boys and one girl – interact with more English children than Pakistani children, and they identify with British culture. They are British children with a Pakistani heritage, not Pakistani children simply living in England. Their father, however, sees things much differently.
He strives to raise the children according to Pakistani culture. He sends them to learn Urdu, the native tongue of Pakistan. He arranges for his eldest three sons to marry Pakistani women. He abuses his wife and one of his sons when they do not obey him. He demands to be respected but fails to give respect. In the end, his provincial outlook on life destroys his family.
From beginning to end, you are enchanted and intrigued by the characters. You question the father’s actions but understand his internal struggle. No questions are left unanswered. You empathize with all of the characters despite their actions. Each of the actors truly becomes their character. You see them only as the person that they reveal to you on screen (however, this may be because you have never seen them in another role).
As the father, Puri is the only actor that elicits a negative response from the audience. His character is both genteel and violent. Yet, the audience never hates the man. Thanks to Puri’s stunning performance, you get angry at him, but it never elevates past that level.
Bassett continually interjects one-line quips that catch you off guard and inevitably make you burst into laughter. Ella may not be the best mother (after dumping a box of cookies on a dinner plate, she tells the children breakfast is ready), but she loves her children. Bassett turns Ella into a strong-willed woman with a soft spot for her children. The entire family has potty mouths, but you’re pretty sure that she’s the ringleader of the nasty vocabulary. But, no matter how many times they say piss-off or call something bastard, you laugh.
Furthermore, the six young actors who play the children perform like old professionals. Their performances are polished and leave little room for improvement. The youngest of the children, Sarge, takes the brunt of the family’s abuse, but it only helps to foster the feeling that these are not simply actors portraying siblings. You easily could see these actors as real-life siblings. They achieve that tenuous balance between hate and love, cruel jokes and good humor that only siblings can sustain.
In his directorial debut, Damien O’Donnell makes a huge splash. He takes the idea of a comedy and pushes it one step further – he makes it real. The various camera angles give the film a genuine feeling. In the end, you forget that you are watching a movie. It’s more like a home video.
East Is East does something that few American movies do. It combines humor with a real message. And the message isn’t fluffy. It’s hard-hitting and it’s about life. East Is East takes everyday life and the everyday struggles of life and puts them on the big screen.