Broken English, the first feature by New Zealand's Gregor Nicholas, is a Romeo and Juliet tale that owes the usual huge debt to Shakespeare and the dozens of variations filmmakers have attempted over the decades.
But it is beautiful and disturbing in new ways. Just to start with, Nicholas's young lovers are a free-spirited Croatian girl called Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic), whose family has just fled the terrors of war for Auckland, and a Maori boy, Eddie (Julian Arahanga from Once Were Warriors), recently come to the city. Both of them are displaced persons, and they are fiercely drawn to each other in the relentless heat of the restaurant where they work. This frankly carnal update on the Bard's great classic copulates at whim and breaks the occasional bed frame. More power to the kids, I say.
But love is still not easy in a world of warring tribes. Nina's father, Ivan (Rade Serbedzija), is a fierce disciplinarian and a belligerent nationalist who detests the Serbs and all other outsiders, and her muscle-bound brother (Marton Csokas) trails in Dada's poisonous wake. That's not good news for Eddie--or for the fiery Nina. Throughout this tense meditation on insularity and romantic transcendence, we know there's a violent confrontation coming.
Meanwhile, director Nicholas counterbalances the darkness with something called Whakapapa--a Maori concept that encompasses family, ancestry and the earth you come from. It's first embodied in a young tree Eddie's family has sent him, later in the cross-cultural roots Nina and Eddie try with so much difficulty to plant in a place that's alien to both of them.
Nina might be even better prepared for the challenge than Eddie is. Home in Sarajevo, she dodged whistling shrapnel in the streets, calmly smoking a joint: "I had shelter of my mind," she explains, "which I carry wherever I go."
Just so. In this way, she seems the soul sister of the Bombay immigrant girl in Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, who undertakes an interracial romance with a young African-American in the Deep South--public opinion and family resistance be damned.
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Wisely, Nicholas brings another couple to his border war. The Wus (Jing Zhao and Yang Li)--immigrants from China--want nothing more than to assimilate and "make little Kiwis," but first there must be a green-card marriage involving Nina, a cohabitation marked by four toothbrushes in the cup and--thanks to some deft direction and storytelling--an inter-ethnic bonding that speaks well for the tolerance of youth and the felling of barriers.
In sum, this is a most impressive debut--nicely acted, beautifully written (we even hear "I love you" in four languages) and blessedly free of sticky sentiment. If you like your love stories with sinew and sense, social awareness and acute political observation, this is the splendid little movie for you--four centuries after a pretty fair Elizabethan scribbler set the course.
Screenplay by Gregor Nicholas, Johanna Pigott and Jim Salter. Directed by Gregor Nicholas. With Aleksandra Vujcic, Julian Arahanga, Rade Serbedzija and Yang Li.