When two American soldiers find themselves stranded in Afghanistan after a helicopter crash, they encounter a local family that lives in the shell of a Soviet tank and grows opium
to survive. The soldiers now find their lives in the hands of this bickering cast of family members. 

2.5
Strange, ambient war film obscures intentions.

PERSIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Late in this very strange, disquieting picture made in Afghanistan by director Seddiq Barmak (Osama), there’s a scene where a gaggle of kids lead two dazed downed US helicopter pilots through a make-shift grave site. The cemetery looks like something out of a Z-grade spaghetti western without the Christianity. Instead of crucifixes, sticks with raggedy flags mark the fresh graves.

At first, I didn’t have a clue as to why the children might by leading the Americans to this place. Up to this point in the movie the Yankee soldiers have been full of suspicion and hostility and that’s a feeling the locals gladly and freely reciprocate. (The soldiers are played by Peter Bussian and Joe Suba, and like the rest of the cast, they’re non-actors). By this point in the yarn, the men are so 'out of it’, emotionally speaking, they elect to numb their physical experience by licking opium bulbs.

Both sides are scared and neither understands the other’s language. At the cemetery, the kids start to explain to the Americans who is buried where"¦ 'here’s a Brit,""¦here’s a Russian"¦" 'here’s a Talib," 'here’s a Pakistani." The kids are laughing, dancing. The Americans don’t know what’s going on and eventually the children lead them into a 'deadfall’ (a kind of booby trap; a deep well-like hole sunk in the desert floor). The Americans are pissed off; they thought the kids wanted to be pals. In this place that kind of sentimentality is silly.

This sequence sums up the film nicely, I think. It’s a topsy-turvy world where the children are cunning and full of guile; the adults are indolent, incompetent, exhausted and useless, and moment-to- moment it’s hard to figure why we’re in a scene, and when we do, motivations remain obscure.

Opium War doesn’t really have much of a plot and its story points are left deliberately vague. The basic situation is a classic 'clash of cultures’ set up. In a conventional film, the story would involve the isolated soldiers developing a meaningful relationship with 'the hostiles’ in order to survive (that’s a war film seen many times!) But this plot never ratchets up any tension mostly because the director seems utterly uninterested in anything approaching such basic cinematic suspense tropes. That’s not a criticism, either; instead of action and suspense, there’s an odd, dreamy, druggy ambience, which is pretty interesting bit by bit, but the strategy exhausts itself before the final fade out.

Barmak breaks the film into episodes which suggest the cruel impact of war – how it wounds family, smashes economies, screws up the mind. The dialogue seems consciously fragmented and the scenes come out of nowhere.

There is a family who live here in a wrecked Soviet tank and they survive by selling opium. The society here has a complete absence of young men and the family relies on the guidance and discipline of a bullying teen called Scorpion (Fawad Samani), who dominates the women and when he isn’t causing trouble, he’s making fun of everything and everyone.

Critics have called the film absurdist and surreal. The settings, costumes, and even the photography has got a lived-in doco quality, but at the same time, the film is shamelessly theatrical and contrived to make things seem silly, or stupid, sad or pointless.

Certainly, Barmak is at play here in a film-world that has only a nodding acquaintance with what we casually refer to as 'realism". For instance, there’s a scene where the soldiers are wandering through a stark, empty landscape (actually, that’s a signature beat for the film"¦ there’s a lot of stark, empty landscapes here). The men hear music; they stop and listen"¦ it’s like the music is 'speaking for them’, the way movie music underscores a dramatic moment. The men discover a moment later that what they are hearing is music coming from an old cassette tape.

I’m not sure whether the film is out to conjure laughs, but there were moments that I thought were funny (like the cemetery scene). Most of the time, though, I was left feeling at a loss, in a strange place where I did not know the rules.

Indeed, you might say that the film’s weird disorientating feeling might be a metaphor for the experience of a war where all alliances, relationships and day-to-day feelings have no boundaries and no relevance.