Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

BROKEN ENGLISH (New Zealand, 1996) ***

Directed by Gregor Nicholas. Written by Nicholas, Johanna Pigott, Jim Salter. Produced by Robin Scholes. Photography, John Toon. Editing, David Coulson. Production design, Mike Kane. Music, Murray McNabb. Cast: Rade Serbedzija (Ivan, the father), Aleksandra Vujcic (daughter Nina), Julian Arahanga (Eddie), Marton Csokas (Darko), et al. A Sony Classics release. In several languages. 90 minutes. Rated NC-17 (see text).
Broken English is the language spoken in New Zealand by immigrants from many countries. The last half-dozen years have seen a wave of people who want to become Kiwis (the nickname for New Zealanders).

Long ago, the first inhabitants were Polynesians. Much later they took on the name Maori ("normal") to differentiate themselves from the European colonists and settlers, mostly from the British Isles plus a hefty amount of Dutch. Numerous Croatians arrived in waves in the 1890s, the 1950s and the 1990s.

A family of recent Croatian emigres with their own values holds center stage in the movie. Dominating all is Ivan, played by a Yugoslav film and stage star, now London-based and doing well.

One has to know the Croatian temper to understand Ivan. He is abrupt, imperious, intractable. He is doing well in business, yet remains in a constant bellicose mood. Much of this is caused by his hatred of Serbs, whose atrocities toward Croats seem to reprise older ones by another country. Historical enmities smolder. As Ivan puts a spit through a pig for a barbecue, he tells a little boy to watch: "That's what the Turks did to us."

Ivan insult for the Serbs is "Chetniks." That is the pot calling the kettle black. During the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, the Serbs had two resistance movements, the royalists/nationalists Chetniks, under Colonel Mihailovic, and the communist Partisans under Tito.The two groups fought the Germans as well as each other. Germany and Italy set up the allied, independent State of Croatia under Ante Pavelic, the head of the fascist terrorist organization Ustasha who, in a campaign of ethnic "purification" so atrocious that it even shocked some Germans, killed hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies, and anti fascist Croats.

The apple of Ivan's eye is Nina, one of his two daughters. She is played by first-time actress Aleksandra Vujcic, a newcomer to New Zealand who did not even want to be in movies. Ms. Vucjic fits her part to a t. She has presence, earthy sexiness and good looks. In many shots she reminds one uncannily of Lolita Davidovich, the actress born in Canada of Yugoslav parents.

Nina is something of a promiscuous Daisy Mae figure sometimes trampishly dressed. Early on, her Tata ("daddy"in Serbo-Croatian), engaged in the national activity of talking politics, drinking, and smoking with cronies, notices that Nina is coupling with a young man in a parking lot. He demolishes the car. You don't have to be an exceptionally possessive father to act that way. Feelings run high in the Balkans. From the Danube down to Crete, there is still a tradition of fathers and brothers who may knife to death any man who has sullied a daughter's or sister's honor. Ivan is more of a familiar figure than an exception.

The restaurant where Nina works is owned by an immigrant Chinese, a "soignee" lady who is into extra-curricular money-making schemes. Nina's New Zealand-born mother enables the young woman to hold a New Zealand passport. The lady boss proposes that she marry, in name only, and for a bundle, the chef, Mr. Wu, a refugee from China in need of establishing residency for himself and later for his also undocumented Chinese girlfriend.

Meanwhile Nina comes on strong to Eddie, her handsome Maori kitchen-mate. Lightning-fast sex follows, then a love-making scene. The latter got the movie a rare and ludicrously severe NC-17 rating. The activity is suggested rather than seen, as it takes place in darkness. Director Nicholas has appealed, to no avail. It has also been suggested that the real reason was a four-letter disparagement of the Pope (Croats are Catholics) and his appeals to brotherhood.

Nina and Eddie live together. Furious Ivan blows hot and cold towards Nina, now loving now mad as hell. Still, his opposition becomes an uneasy wait-and-see truce until it explodes and Nina is made literally into a prisoner within a sealed room at Ivan's house. For more developments, see the film. It is time well spent.

I was puzzled by most reviewers' recurring mention of the movie as a Romeo and Juliet story, until I saw this comparison (plus "star-crossed lovers), in the press-book. This is an inaccurate simplification. It would have been valid had the lovers belonged to same-origin but warring (vendetta-prone) tribes. But here we have a racial situation.

In spite of simplifications and cliches, the film is interesting, authentic as an ethnographic document and as an insight into the increasingly multi-racial New Zealand, a land of just three-and-half million people.An insider's job, it captures diversities and tensions, it peeps into the colorful Croatian Kiwis.

At one point, Nina, ordered by Tata to attend a celebration, brings along Eddie. The situation is tense yet there's also a wonderfully warm and joyous side to it as the extras, including many members of the Dalmatian Club of Auckland, sing with abandon lovely songs. And, in a nice invention, it just happens that in the neighbors' yard, at a Maori gathering, swaying Maori perform Polynesian songs. The musical duel and the beauty of both ethnic repertories are cleverly , if artificially, symbolic of contrasts and similarities.

The most beautiful and lyrical scene however, comes after Eddie has left Nina --temporarily, don't fret. She joins him on a tourist boat he runs with a friend, and she swims among the dolphins.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel