What They Say:
Never Underestimate a Girl with Nothing Left to Lose. KITE tells the story of Sawa (India Eisley, “The Secret Life of the American Teenager,” Underworld: Awakening), a young woman living in a corrupt society where crime and gangs terrorize the streets. When Sawa’s mother and policeman father are found victims of a grisly double homicide, she begins a ruthless pursuit for the man who murdered them. With the help of her father’s ex-partner, Karl Aker (Samuel L. Jackson, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Avengers, Django Unchained), and a mysterious friend from her past (Callan McAuliffe, The Great Gatsby, I Am Number Four), she becomes a merciless teen assassin, blasting her way through the dark world of human trafficking only to uncover a devastating truth.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Purposed as an homage to the “inventive” action of Yasuomi Umetsu’s KITE (1998), Ziman’s 2014 “adaptation” tells its own story by transplanting the original core cast—Sawa, Akai (now Karl Aker), and Oburi—into a mostly new script by Brian Cox that was written as an attempt to fill in the “undefined” context of the original work. Knowing this is critical to getting any enjoyment out of the viewing if already familiar with the source material. The gist is easy enough to pick up on, even without the brief-but-blatant (and, to the film’s credit, pretty unnecessary) expository setting dump after the title, but if your mind’s trying to piece together how new KITE is old KITE, your head will explode. They are completely different animals.
Whereas Umetsu trains a microscope to study the hypocrisy and depraved emotional manipulation of its characters, Ziman employs rooftop security cameras to show how the world operates and its effects on the characters. The 2014 KITE is set in a state of post-financial collapse, where security’s broken down and gangs terrorize the populous by abducting and selling children to “The Emir.” Flesh is the new cash, and its trade is the focus of this film. All that the audience is made aware of in this world, regarding its inhabitants, are the victims, the gangs, the criminals, and the police (who are not mutually exclusive). Thinking back on it, that’s a pretty effective way of immersing the audience in a slightly pre-Mad Max atmosphere, but it’s not nearly as quick as the setting itself.
Shot in neglected areas of downtown Johannesburg in South Africa, most of the movie takes place in and amidst the crumbling buildings of a forsaken infrastructure. Residents are largely relegated to the status of squatters, and the tone of such is set rather competently with scraps and makeshift living quarters appearing randomly throughout the extent of the film. There’s also an urban effect, which was wrought by employing South African street artists to go to town on, well, the town. Honestly, besides the odd architectural mix and variety of distinct, almost disorienting, interior décors, the graffiti is one of the most outstanding visual aspects of the film. What the film does best, as per its mission statement, is move.
Tight quarters are not the easiest for shooting, let alone when the condemned buildings being used as the set are literally crumbling beneath the crew’s feet. Still, shooting via multiple cameras simultaneously without following the characters let them define the field of view by testing the range of movement possible within the captured frame. Every shot done in this manner suddenly has so much possibility. Whether it’s line of people in the distance jumping over ledges and growing larger towards the camera, one character dropping down between stairwell landings while another descends the circular flights, or individual gang members emerging from half-demolished apartments and scrambling over broken rooftops to converge like a swarm within the multi-layered rubble, the range of human motion is made to look incredible.
Moving from scene to scene and establishing exactly where the action (or talky bits) are happening is a little more complicated. With a distinct setting for almost every scene and little or no transition between each, there’s no real sense of geographic orientation. If you want to overthink it (and you know I do), keep in mind that Sawa, the main character followed by the cameras throughout the film, is either directly under the influence of a memory-erasing drug or subject to the gradual withdrawal therefrom. (As each dose wears off, little shifts, like patches of flashbacks, start to appear in mirrors, on others’ faces, or the entire screen.) If intentional, this is worth great applause … if it were ever put to any greater use (which it unfortunately never is).
Somewhat lending credence to the transposition of Sawa’s scrambled mind and disoriented scene transition, however, is the only real sense of an established space we get from the camera’s perspective: the apartment shared by Sawa and Aker. Everything else is either a maze of interior hallway shots or building lots defined only as far as their own footprint. But Aker’s apartment building is shown multiple times, as seen and approached by Sawa, in a distinct lot with unique archictectural cues and coloring as well as several surrounding streets and landmarks. This grounding nature reflects its importance to Sawa as home or at least the only place that seems familiar. Being able to trap the audience in Sawa’s condition this adeptly, even if used only a few times over, is perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this film with regards to establishing Sawa’s character.
Because Cox’s script is all about action and world building, and because Ziman brings out the best in the script, it’s not surprising that the audience won’t care a single bit for any of these characters. Why does Aker do what he does? Hard to care when we get no real backstory or face time on the matter aside from a brief interchange with a fellow officer at the very beginning of the film. For a reasonably complex motive, you’d expect some of it to be fleshed out to make him seem more dichotomous. What does Oburi’s shadowing of Sawa mean? Nothing … until the end of the film, when it’s of absolutely no emotional consequence. Actually, I lie: it degrades Sawa’s character to that of a damsel in distress who has to be rescued from the stalker-ish white knight whenever she gets in over her head. How did Sawa even get to be an assassin? Never even touched upon. Why does Sawa repeatedly and voluntarily take a drug that makes her forget the reason for her revenge? Sorry, but trusting Aker, who adopted her and repeatedly injects her with a mind-altering drug, and getting the shakes from withdrawal from said drug is not a good enough answer, especially when she secretly hides a picture of her family from him. At best this portrays a naïve, pitiful character instead of pitiable one—a mere shadow of the cold, aware warrior Sawa is in the anime. And that only covers the core characters.
Aside from Samuel L. Jackson, the core cast is outshined in many instances by the supporting cast. (Even so, Jackson is often used horribly: spouting quirky one-liners about Sawa’s most recent kill, giving her a lecture, and then disappearing off screen.) Though saying so may initially come across as criticism (and it is), it also speaks to the believability of the world surrounding the main cast—something crucial to fostering an accessibility. Particular credit is due to Zane Meas, who steals the only scene he’s in, and Cleo Rinkwest, who plays a derogatorily written part with astounding fluency given the lines of severely broken English she’s made to speak. While the acting is, on par, decent enough to carry the movie along, the more unfortunate scenes involve India Eisley in more intimate moments of revenge—the very acts for which the script was purportedly written and most audience member came to see. Eisley’s fine while swallowed up and stirred about in the surrounding action, but her line delivery seems either choked with too much emotion or stymied by overacting in crucial moments. However appropriate (or real) that may have been, it comes across as incredibly forced on camera.
The cast’s mix of thick accents and occasionally indiscernible speech does bring across a welcome element of diversity, but why this eclectic mix exists in the first place is barely touched upon (if at all) and just serves as an added element of disorientation. A little more unforgivable is the depiction of the Numbers gang. This group, the only one in the film comprised of mostly dark-skinned members, is portrayed as animalistic and mindlessly violent, while lighter-skinned gangs and cartel members are simply members of gangs and cartels. With some degree of forgiveness, this depiction was lifted, according to Cox, directly from an existing group in South Africa’s Pollsmoor Prison. Their name, the “idea of their identity,” and their look were transplanted and set within the film. However true to life it may be, it’s a distraction and one that leaves a particularly foul taste in the mind.
Somewhat cleansing, and returning to the film’s main strength of visual acuity, is the use of color, shadow, and lines—all of which harken back to the original KITE. Certain colors—the pink wig, the red dress—seem a direct call back to the anime, but they are also directly at odds with the environment. This effect succeeds in setting Sawa apart from the environment, but the washed-out backgrounds and buildings against such neon garb and makeup recall the recent Frank Miller movies but with little of their consistency or intent. Shadows lend a great deal to the atmosphere of many scenes but never reach beyond their shallow nature into usefulness. They make a shot look lovely, but never serve any use to any of the cast or the audience watching the cast. Lines, on the other hand, lend to a wonderful sense of scene composition and setup.
There are a couple nods to Umetsu throughout this film: a couple of familiar scenes, the effects and gore (nice work on the delayed exploding bullets and their use), and the much appreciated inclusion of the wildly inappropriate soft sax music. Overall, however, this is a completely different movie—one that seems surprisingly content to be even more shallow than its 2D inspiration. But hey, at least it had the decency to omit the sexual abuse.
Straight adaptations are never fun, but diverging too far from the source material often alienates fans of the original property. What Ellis, Ziman, and Cox have done with KITE is delve into and exploit the unexplored corners of Umetsu’s original world and characters to reimagine and grow them in order to tell an alternative story. While trying to recreate animation with live action is a fool’s errand, the resulting visuals are evidence of hard work and love of shadow, color, geometry, and motion. Samuel L. Jackson is, without a doubt, the major draw to this film as well as the talent bar to which the rest of the cast fail to aspire, but each and every actor, from those with spoken lines to those filling in the crumbling Johannesburg set as extras, adds their individual something to help define this new world. If unable to let go of Umetsu’s KITE, this film will seem, in many aspects, a travesty. But if it’s possible to erase one’s mind or put aside petty prejudices prior to viewing, there are at least a few things waiting for viewers to appreciate. Ooh, look: a kite!
Content Grade: C-
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: A-
Released By: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Release Date: October 10th, 2014
Running Time: 90 Minutes