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It’s logical to assume that Such a Long Journey shortchanges Rohinton Mistry’s 1991 novel, but without reading the book it’s hard to guess how. Although condensing a novel into a two-hour film inevitably involves some affront to the original story, director Sturla Gunnarsson and scripter Sooni Taraporevala’s adaptation is complex and satisfying. The movie has enough fully developed themes, events, and characters to outfit a dozen one-dimensional Hollywood crowd-pleasers of the Erin Brockovich ilk.
Although set in 1971 rather than 1947, Such a Long Journey in many ways mirrors Deepa Mehta’s Earth, another Canadian film about turmoil in India. Both turn on imminent border clashes between India and Pakistan, and both have at their center a family of Parsis—descendants of the Zoroastrians who fled Islamic persecution in Persia 12 centuries ago, and thus nonparticipants in any recent Hindu-Muslim hostility. Whereas Earth’s central character was a little girl, however, this film’s protagonist is a middle-aged, middle-class man, trad-jazz-loving Bombay bank clerk Gustad Noble (Roshan Seth). Blustering and yet in some ways naive, Gustad is the sort of father who insists that his college-age son, Sohrab (Vrajesh Hirjee), take the customary route to conventional success, even though Gustad himself is resentful of how the system has treated him.
When Sohrab refuses to go to engineering school, Gustad disowns him, and the boy disappears. Although Sohrab’s mother, Dilnavaz (Soni Razdan), is less excitable than her husband, her response is no more rational. She consults a spell-casting neighbor, who counsels that another person must be sacrificed so that Sohrab can return home. They choose Tehmul (Kurush Deboo), the childlike retarded man who lives in the same apartment complex.
Adding to Gustad’s worries is a message from his old friend Jimmy (Naseeruddin Shah), an Indian secret agent whose disappearance may be the result of a covert assignment to foment insurrection in East Pakistan, which is soon to become Bangladesh. Jimmy’s associate Ghulam (Om Puri) asks Gustad to secretly deposit a small fortune in his bank. The cash may be needed for official purposes, but then again it could simply be money that Jimmy has skimmed for his own enrichment. After all, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi herself is about to be accused of using the war as the opportunity to plump her offshore accounts.
Bombay itself is an epic, if chaotic, pageant, and Gunnarsson and cinematographer Jan Kiesser—who actually dared shoot on location in the city’s anarchic markets and train stations—capture it in both imagery and subplots. There is, for example, a battle over the wall around Gustad’s apartment complex, which the bank clerk transforms by encouraging a sidewalk artist (Ranjit Chowdhry) to decorate it with images of some of the country’s many gods. Only in India could a Parsi recruit a Hindu to embellish a wall with Christian (among other) symbols.
Such multiplicity provides much of the film’s appeal. The images are both gritty and luminous, the conflicts both universal and specific, the tone both somber and humorous. This sort of multilayered texture is harder to create in a film than in a novel, and there are times—the denouement, for example—when Such a Long Journey becomes glib. If the story of the Noble family ends a little too neatly, however, the movie that swirls around it is richly suggestive and piquantly open-ended.
Hong Kong goes hiphop in Romeo Must Die, a carefully formulated crossover vehicle for Beijing-born action superstar Jet Li that manages to be more than a marketing exercise. The film, the first directed by veteran cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, has no soul—the Stanley Clarke/Timbaland score excepted—but lots of flash, verve, and humor.
The title refers to the R&J relationship between former HK cop Han (Li) and Oakland boutique owner Trish (singer Aaliyah), the offspring of warring crime lords, but a movie that marries two macho subcultures can hardly be expected to waste much time on romance. Han and Trish never come as close as the two Chinese babes who gratuitously fondle and smooch in the opening scene, in which Han’s brother, Po (Jon Kit Lee), crashes an underground club run by Silk (rapper DMX). Po is killed soon after, and it’s his murder that inspires Han to bust out of the Hong Kong prison where he’s been serving time to protect Po and their father, Ch’u (Henry O).
The film, scripted by Eric Bernt and John Jarrell from a story by Mitchell Kapner, wisely doesn’t attempt to explain exactly why Han is behind bars; the martial-arts whiz simply vanquishes some brutal guards and heads to Oakland, where Trish’s brother, Colin (D.B. Woodside), is about to be snuffed. After meeting sort of cute, Han and Trish ally to discover who killed their siblings. It can’t be said, however, that the cross-cultural couple investigates the murders. Romeo Must Die doesn’t have the patience for that sort of thing; it’s too busy staging eight gravity-defying, bone-crushing (as revealed in simulated X-ray) fight sequences, some of them unprecedented even in HK-action-film annals. Besides, it doesn’t take much snooping to discover who’s trying to create a rift between provisionally allied gang bosses Ch’u and Isaak (Delroy Lindo). Respective lieutenants Kai (Russell Wong) and Mac (Isaiah Washington) could scarcely appear less trustworthy.
Amusingly, both Ch’u and Isaak are working on something more pernicious than drugs, hookers, or protection: assembling property for a new NFL stadium in a surprisingly glitzy Oakland. (It’s actually Vancouver, of course.) That’s almost as droll as Han’s chivalrous code of conduct: He never touches a gun except when disarming one of his opponents, and he can only overcome his taboo against hitting a woman by using Trish’s fists and feet to vanquish a female assassin (played by HK action stalwart Francoise Yip). Although the final showdown looks as if it’s gotta hurt, several of Li’s set pieces are essentially comic.
That’s an interesting development in a movie produced by action-flick mogul Joel Silver, who introduced Li to Hollywood with Lethal Weapon 4 and used HK fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping, a frequent Li collaborator, to give The Matrix its noncyber kick. Although Romeo Must Die deals in death, destruction, and DMX, it also sets the stage for the kung fu star’s second, Jackie Chan-like career as a comedian. CP