Tuesday, August 5, 2014

A Peck on the Cheek (Kannathil Muthamittal) - Movie Review

When I approach foreign films, I always try my best to shelve cultural criticisms and accept it on its own terms. To some extent this is impossible, though it's much easier with European films than Asian ones. I have enough of an American need for emotionalism to feel like Russian characters are more like walking, talking existential crises than actual human beings. Indian films, on the other hand, indulge so deeply in sentimentality that I find it next to impossible to attach any real value to their emotion. Does this mean I can’t appreciate Russian or Indian films? No (for instance, I quite liked Kin-Dza-Dza!) but makes it harder. A Peck on the Cheek is difficult to review, just because it's so far outside my preferences and familiarity, but though my standards of measure may be Western, I have no others, and they are what I use.

Amudha is a precocious, petite, Sri Lankan version of Ferris Bueller, from hating her teacher, to delivering an introductory, breaking-the-fourth-wall monologue and being the center of a huge musical number. Everything is about Amudha; she's the heroine and she knows it.

But the film isn't really about Amudha (or it shouldn't be); it's much bigger than her blissful childhood. After an opening, introducing a pair of star-crossed lovers (her real parents) in a war-zone, we slip entirely into Amudha's world, which has all the cheesiness and extravagance of a Disney cartoon. Still, the introduction remains as a solemn reminder that there are things happening outside this children's story, and unlike Ferris Bueller, Amudha will eventually have to engage with this.

Discovering she is adopted, Amudha's innocence begins to crumble, and does so further when she and her adoptive parents travel with her to search for her mother in war-torn Sri Lanka. As the story progresses, the tone grows more solemn and dramatic, refusing to glamorize the terror of war. The contrast between comedy and drama is effective, but it doesn't quite work; the film can't settle on one style or the other.

A Peck on the Cheek, as such, is mistitled. It should have been called Nine Hundred Thirty-One Pecks on the Cheek, Plus Some Hugs. If it tells me anything about Indian culture, it’s that family is extremely important. Amudha’s parents, the lovingly drawn Thiruchelvan and Indira, foster a happy family environment around their daughter, two younger, biological sons, and quirky grandfather Ganesan. 

But surprisingly, despite the insistence on a traditional setting (the first scene takes place at an arranged marriage), Amudha gets away with a significant amount of brattiness, leading to real danger when she and her parents enter Sri Lanka. I kept hoping for some resolution to that tension, but for the most part it is disappointingly swept under the rug, and what change there is comes late and is merely touched upon.

The film has some wonderful elements. While too long, the extended music videos are technically brilliant and dramatically choreographed. A flashback to Amudha's adoptive parents' romance is funny, moving, and well-written, being one of my favorite parts of the movie. Its cinematography is far more thoughtful and carefully organized than your usual American coming-of-age flick. In particular, I appreciated the emphasis on Amudha's isolation in large expanses. The film has the bravery to include small, poignant scenes which have no bearing on the plot (on the other hand, editing is a big problem with regard to the more sentimental elements.)

When the Civil War does intrude into the story, it does so in an impressively large and dramatic scale, and doesn't shy away from violence. Acting is excellent all around, and P.S. Keerthana is particularly impressive in her first and last film role.

It really only stumbles into problems on two fronts: sentimentality and logic. I've covered the sentimentality already - it keeps us from truly appreciating the grimness of the war, understanding the motivations for the major decisions, or providing a more ambiguous, weighty conclusion. 

Also, it is worth watching just for lots of scenes with this guy.
Logic kept me from understanding why in the world people persisted in doing foolish things. Understandably we have a bossy protagonist, but at some point you'd think Dad would put his foot down and say Look People We Are Not Entering A War Because Of A Little Girl's Feelings. But putting that aside as a matter for suspension of disbelief, the inability to "tell us the truth about its hero" is its greatest flaw, and in the end, the most significant.

3/5 stars

Hannah Long

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