Ae Fond Kiss by Elena Oliete

Written by Elena Oliete. Posted in CCSBlog

“Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;

 Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!”

Ae Fond Kiss (Ken Loach, 2004)

 

Elena Oliete

 

When describing the opening sequence of Ken Loach’s Ae Fond Kiss (2004), terms such as hybridity, mixture, diversity and multiculturality immediately spring to mind. In contrast to films such as Roger Michell’s Notting Hill (2000), Sharon Maguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998) and Harry Potter (with all its never-ending sequels), which portray a completely whitewashed image of Britain, in Ae Fond Kiss there is an effort to incorporate new possibilities in the representation of British identity. Thus, although white and English, Loach seems to be willing to momentarily join the ranks of contemporary British-Asian filmmakers who have tried to voice the long-silenced experiences of non-white people in the British isles. Gurinder Chadha’s Bhaji on the Beach (1993), Bend It Like Beckham (2002) and Bride and Prejudice (2004), Damien O’Donnell’s East is East (1999) and Metin Hüseyin‘s Anita and Me (2002) are some examples which would belong to this category of films.

 

In Loach’s characteristic social realist style, Ae Fond Kiss presents a love story between Qasim (Atta Yaqub), a Muslim man of Pakistani background, and Roisin (Eva Birthistle), a Catholic Irish girl, both of them living in Glasgow. Their different cultural and religious backgrounds prove to be no problem for neither of them until they are confronted with the demands and prejudices of members of their respective communities. Racism, together with cultural and religious intolerance, becomes the target of Loach’s criticism in the film. In the opening sequence, Loach presents a plural vision of what it means to be British nowadays, which tries to do away with the monolithic discourses that equate Britishness with Englishness and whiteness. The film’s opening shot shows a group of young British Asians dancing Bhangra in a disco pub against the title of the film, a line of a poem by Robert Burns. As the music continues, the image changes to a panoramic view of the industrial and grey city of Glasgow, which culminates in the portrayal of the typical grocery shop run by a Pakistani family. In the first two minutes of the film, then, the spectator faces, one could say, an overdose of “hybridity”. On the one hand, we have the main character, Qasim, a hybrid Muslim Glaswegian of Pakistani origins who works as a DJ in a discotheque in Glasgow. He plays Bhangra, a type of music originated in Punjab which has become successful worldwide because of its hybridised fusion with pop and hip hop Western styles (notice here that Punjab is itself a hybrid region shared by India and Pakistan). If we pay attention to details, we will notice a screen at the disco which plays not a video-clip of the song we hear but a musical number of a Bollywood film starring the hybrid top actor of contemporary cinematographic industry at Mumbai, Shahrukh Khan, one of the most desirable men in India, who paradoxically is not a Hindu but a Muslim of Pakistani origins. At the same time, this is taking place in Scotland, but the image of the region that is offered in this film is not that of the traditional rural and romanticised Scotland of the Highlands, the kilt and Rob Roy but that of industrial, grey, smoky and hybrid Glasgow. And, on top of that, the title refers to Burns, one of the symbols of Scotland which reasserts the specificity of Scottish identity against the English norm by just adding an “e” to the article (we could say, hybridising the English language).

 

In case the spectator has not noticed all these multiple references to hybridity, the first scene of the film after the credits presents Tahara (Shabana Bakhsh), Qasim’s sister, delivering a speech at school on her cultural experience as a British-Asian girl. She defends the diversity of the Muslim experience around the world, and accuses the attempts of the West to label all Muslims as fundamentalists and terrorists. She describes how Islam is differently lived in her own family and, in a strong Scottish accent, describes herself as a Muslim teenager born in Glasgow, attending a Catholic school, and, to top it all, a Muslim woman supporter of the Celtic Rangers: “I’m a mixture and proud of it”, she shouts. She is later abused by some of her classmates, but she proves perfectly capable of defending herself and ends up running after the scared boys, thus undoing the stereotype of the shy, passive and submissive Asian woman.

 

Quite a promising beginning for the film, which then moves on to develop the inter-cultural love relationship that allows Loach to break with another long standing taboo in cinema: that of portraying explicit scenes of interracial sex with love, especially when the partners are a “black” man and a “white” woman. I write “black” within inverted commas because I use it as a culturally constructed term meaning “non-white”, as not many Pakistanis would call themselves “black” nowadays. Commas are also used for “white”, as it is also a culturally constructed term. Although, taking into account that the girl is form Ireland, it could be surmised that she is not completely “white” if compared to white Anglo-Saxons from England. In that case Loach wouldn’t be really breaking the long-standing taboo. I wonder whether Loach did that on purpose. In that case, he would continue with the fashion established by films such as East is East or Bend it Like Beckham, in which, when portraying an interracial relationship, the “white” counterpart happens to be Irish, so that the Anglo-Saxon white norm remains “unstained”. Notice here that the explicit sex scene does not take part in Britain but in Spain, a place which is not allowed a “hybrid” representation, but which reinforces the image of the sunny beach where Europeans go to “nookie”, as a sign at the beginning of the film hints.

 

As the film develops, the story loses its initial appeal from the point of view of the representation of diversity and ends up with the oft-repeated Romeo-and-Juliet plot cum South Asian arranged marriage subplot and falling precisely into the stereotypes the film initially tried to break up with. There is, for instance, no diversity within both the Catholic and Muslim communities, both of them showing fundamentalism and intolerance in their prejudices against the interracial relationship – Catholic and Muslim, by the way. What about Anglicans, I wonder. Maybe, in his effort to portray the diversity of cultures within Britain, Loach has forgotten to represent the one traditionally associated with the mainstream, with the norm. But, in that way, the norm remains invisible, and thus, untouchable; hence, prejudice and fundamentalism are deviated to both Catholics and Muslims. Or maybe the Anglo-Saxon spirit is not so invisible. Maybe it is represented in the individualism of the main characters, who, running away from extremes, stand out as individuals against their communities. Likewise, Tahara, in the Anglo-Saxon fashion, confronts her parents in order to go away to university to study what she, as an individual, likes. Maybe in its effort to denounce intolerance the film falls into the stereotypes it initially set out to critique.

 

Therefore, the promising beginning in which spectators were supposed to find a complex and multifaceted representation of hybridity loses its momentum as the film develops, just like a fond kiss that wouldn’t last for ever, as Burns said.

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