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O21 (2014) – Review

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Sold as an action-thriller, the trailer hinted at a gun toting Shaan defeating evil enemies with the power of one liners. Instead O21 is a surreal meditation on conflicting loyalties.

Contemplative, deliberately paced and often disconcerting, it is a far better film than it appeared to be in its promotion, and therefore requires an audience that is willing to be challenged.

If you don’t know what you are in for it’s easy to be overwhelmed.

Rather than a prologue and exposition we are dropped right into the action which is hard to follow at first as four different points of view are juxtaposed with each other.

The separate stories of an Afghani government official Dost (Hameed Sheikh), radical revolutionary Abdullah (Ayub Khoso), CIA operative Nathan (Joe Town) and former asset Kashif Siddique (Shaan) eventually converge.

Getting to see what’s happening from every angle allows for more context and perspective than if we followed a single protagonist. The daring choice of a fragmented structure as opposed to the usual chronological linear narrative means there is no escalating tension and no real climax. The unfolding of events do not matter as much as the pattern that emerges.

Essentially, O21 is about people who find themselves caught between the twin corruptions of corporate agendas and devious politics centered round Afghan mineral deposits that are accessed through Pakistani routes.

In lesser hands this movie would have been reduced to its plot: Afghan nationalists seek to expose forces that seek to exploit the country’s resources. A microchip with potentially scandalous information becomes the focus of both groups.

But plot is only peripheral here.

The filmmakers have their sights set much higher and add subtlety and nuance to the proceedings. An unending cycle of double crosses makes us question the veracity and motivations of the very characters we want to identify with.

This is not a story about heroics or defeating villains.

It’s about the willingness to give up a part of yourself for something bigger.

Kash’s self sacrifice cannot be reversed. His patriotism, heroism and compassion all require a lack of ego which turns him into more of a spy and less of a person. As much as he wants to connect to his wife Natasha (Aamina Sheikh) he will always be married to his country first. It is a part of the damage heroes take on to save the world.

Abdullah understands this better than anyone and stopped being a person long ago to become indestructible. You cannot break someone who has turned himself into his mission. Charming in his wildness, he is as untameable as Afghanistan itself.

The CIA operatives are somewhat under written. Nathan’s personal motivations seem murky at best.

A well rounded story has villains who are as three dimensional as the protagonists. In contrast Dost slowly transforms from just another cog in the machine to one of the most conflicted and interesting characters whose choices may determine the fate of the country.

The movie is not perfect, but it is beautiful in its ambition.

Grand ideas expressed clumsily will always be better than having nothing to say.

There were some obvious flaws. Some characters and plot lines were not set up, and introducing them in the second half of the film felt contrived.

Choppy editing and several tonal shifts leave evidence of the change in directors from Summer Nicks to Jami. Dialogue was stilted, awkward and distracted from the movie. The one liners seemed forced and designed to be catch phrases.

Luckily the powerful visuals more than compensated for everything else.

Rarely can an impressionistic blast of sound and vision so clearly convey an emotional state of being. The production value is the best I’ve seen in a Pakistani movie to date, and yet O21 isn’t a mere technical achievement: it’s a heartrending, gorgeously realized story of allegiances and loyalty that wrestles with questions of integrity, justice, and patriotism.

It does not glorify war but depicts it in a gritty realistic, thought provoking way. It’s engaging, unflinching and unique in that it dares to tell the dark and intense stories in the shadows.

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