REVIEW: "East is East" Is Sweet and Shallow
by Danny Lorber
(indieWIRE/4.14.2000) -- "East is East," a new film by Damien O'Donnell, paints a portrait of a mixed-race Pakistani family living in London in the early '70s. George Khan ("My Son the Fanatic"'s Om Puri), plays a Pakistani shop owner long settled in Britain, who, as is the tradition, insists that his grown children follow Pakistani rule and marry their own people. As we've seen in hundreds of movies and read in myriad books, the kids don't like this idea, which provides the obvious conflict.
The twist here is that George has been married for 20 years to a white woman (Linda Bassett), which gives the kids plenty of ammunition to use in accusing their father of hypocrisy. George ignores his own example, and demands each of his children wed a Pakistani whom George will pick for them. The first attempt at an arranged marriage doesn't work out at all, as the eldest son Nazir (Ian Aspinall) disses his prospective bride. His punishment is eviction from his parents' house and being cut off by his father for life.
As directed by O'Donnell, "East is East" is infused with plenty of exaggerated, generic humor about independent human behavior and convoluted with dreary and dark scenes portraying a father holding on to the reigns of his children way too tight. George's daughter and six sons have minimal interest in following Pakistani custom. They hang with their Anglo friends, eat "unacceptable food" like bacon, and even worship Christ, not Allah. Their refusals make George crazy and overly extreme, for the short term.
A Miramax release, "East is East" is a light comedy with few new ideas. Mostly exaggerated, the film plays cute in every way. Everyone here is likable and winning, even George, who is far from being an unsympathetic character. He loves his family, he just reveres Pakistani culture, and he's confused and guilty about his own digressions. Puri, a wonderfully nuanced international actor, plays the lead as a man stricken by unending longing for the way things were, confused with the reality of the way things are. He's lost, touchingly so, even when he rages at his kids.
"East is East" is both a remarkably sweet and genuinely uninteresting work. It uses old story telling devices to tell a story that doesn't feel new. Yet we're moved by its directness - it's about a confluence of cultures and disagreements between parents and kids. Its sweetness also comes from its specificity of heritage and lack of pretension. But it leaves you nothing to chew on or debate over. The film's Pakistani cast and the British accents hardly hide the fact that "East is East" is full of Hollywood heart tugging and simplicity in every way.
[Danny Lorber is a film reporter and columnist for ifuse.com]