Broken English

Ivan, the Croatian father in Broken English, runs his household like a benighted patriarchal fiefdom. His younger daughter is allowed to dress like a hooker. But if her boyfriend lays a finger on her she gets clouted and Ivan and his mates smash up the boyfriend’s car. There are Catholic pictures and crucifixes all over the house. But Ivan just has to see one news report from the war- torn Old Country to be raging arid swearing at Momma about “your f***ing Pope” and his insane ideas on forgiveness.
There’s a South Auckland setting for these recent immigrants: a distant view of Mt Wellington in the background, power-lines overhead and next door a Samoan family. Of course, it doesn’t take much to set Ivan muttering under his breath racist curses against his next-door neighbours.
Once upon a time, in the days of liberal-preachy film-making, inter-racial love stories carried a curious subtext. The covert message used to be that people are essentially the same everywhere and racial and cultural differences are only superficial things. So just let ethnic minorities conform to our (majority) norms and everything will be rosy.
To its immense credit, Gregor Nicholas’s Broken English is far less glib and far more confrontational than this.
In Broken English (which Nicholas co-scripted with Johanna Piggott and Jim Salter) the differences between the tribes run deep and are not so easily smoothed over. Ivan is intransigent, bigoted and violent. When his elder daughter Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic) takes up with Eddie (Julian Arahanga), a Maori, you know there will be trouble. And there is. Plenty of it, leading to a loud and brutal climax.
Of course, there’s a danger in so firmly establishing Ivan’s character so early in the movie. Ivan is played by Rade Serbezija, a major star in what was once called Yugoslavia. Serbezija is such a commanding screen presence, with his swagger and his bellowing, that he often threatens to overwhelm what should be Nina’s and Eddie’s story.
It’s harder to respond to Nina and Eddie themselves. They share the most vigorous, explicit, bed-busting sex scene ever devised for a New Zealand movie. But they are curiously bloodless and insubstantial as characters. Newcomer Vujcic is winsome and a little wimpy. Arahanga is treated by the script as a kind of symbol of Maoriness. He plants a whakapapa tree and he makes a speech about how “my family's in this earth”. He also gets to run to the rescue, bare-chested and in slow motion, down a city street. The film sports a subplot wherein Nina contracts a marriage-of-convenience to help a Chinese migrant gain residency. So (with all the Chinese and Croatian faces on screen) there’s nice irony to the way a Maori is the only person who doesn’t speak in broken English. Even so, Eddie fails to grow in stature and Nina remains a plot device.
Gregor Nicholas’s direction (served by John Toon’s bright cinematography) is colourful and busy. Flashes of visual brilliance alternate with awkward stuff in the most lumpy texture of any New Zealand feature since Merata Mita’s Mauri. Nina swimming mystically among the dolphins, or Nina and Eddie making love in the afternoon shade of Venetian blinds -- you need just add a logo to turn these images into TV commercials. But the busy-ness and sleaze of the inner-city restaurant where Nina works; the long backyard Croatian party, while a Samoan party is going on next door; even the over-the-top finale -- all are strikingly watchable. And there are subtleties amongst the overstatement. I assume some sort of symbol for communication is implied by all those cutaway shots to power-lines looping overhead.
Still, the main impact of this one is something like the impact of Once Were Warriors: a punchy suburban melodrama with a social conscience. And loud primary colours to rivet the eyes.

North & South Review by Nicholas Reid - October 1996

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