Ognjen Sviličić: Sorry for Kung Fu (Oprosti za kung fu, 2004) and Armin (2007)

reviewed by Hana Jušić © 2011

In the late 1990s Croatian cinematography slowly started emerging from the now already proverbial “dark ages” with the appearance of films that sought to distance themselves from the sway of dark topics, clichéd portrayal of the war, and naïve propaganda about the post-war era. These new films attempted to re-build credibility that had been lost with the domestic audience. A part of this wave was Wish I Were a Shark (1999), a debut comedy by Ognjen Sviličić (born 1971), which drew filmgoers back to the movie theaters at a time when most of them were rather unenthusiastic about domestic production.

arminOne of the biggest objections to the Croatian film of the nineties was rigid acting and imposition of a form of the standard language which did not reflect reality. Sviličić’s film, by contrast, was announced as sparkling with the southern mischief of the Split region and featuring colorful personages and tricksters. It was also spiced up with an ironic perspective on the rural penetrating the urban milieu. The film, however, did not quite live up to expectations. Its mosaic composition (used as well by Gonzáles Iñárritu) was handled in a somewhat unsophisticated manner and the directorial choices are often unpolished and unelaborated. Regrettably this is not done for the purpose of stylization, which would later become one of Sviličić's strengths as a director. The biggest problem are the characters who are reduced to clichés of a particular mindset. An almost notorious example are two characters from the hills (Vlaji as they are known in the local jargon) who have come down to the coastal urban area of Split in search of fun. Ridiculing precisely such individuals fit well with the widespread wave of intolerance in the 1990s towards the local hillbillies and Herzegovinians who had moved into the urban areas, some of them making profits in shady dealings, and locals felt they brought with them an unwelcome cultural influence. This made them an easy target for derision, and Sviličić too shows them as one-dimensional characters trapped at the level of caricatures or stand- up imitators without providing any critical distance despite his amicable jabs.

sorry for kung fuWhen Sviličić made his next feature, Sorry for Kung Fu, in 2004, the idea of it being situated in the Dalmatian highlands (Zagora), among those same hillbillies was somewhat worrisome as was the fact that the film was announced as yet another comedy, this time with a dark slant.  However, it was precisely this film that came to be praised by the critics as an exceptionally subtle work with a finely calibrated directorial touch that introduced new ideas to Croatian cinematography. On the surface of things the film depicts a specific mentality and its system of beliefs and values—which made Sviličić vulnerable to stereotyping and generalizations. Nonetheless he succeeds in creating exceptionally refined and nuanced characters, while the directorial coarseness from the earlier film is employed here as a part of overall stylization which stands in a dialogic relation to the subject of film.

The plot follows Mira (Daria Lorenci) who comes back to her village in the Dalmatian hinterland from a lengthy stay in Germany. Her recently renovated parental home is situated in a rugged and barren area surrounded by mountains and this landscape (just as in Papić’s Handcuffs) appears to be one of the principal protagonists. The father is a typical product of the environment—strict, patriarchal, verbally parsimonious, protective of his value system— while his wife accommodates to his every whim but also holds the upper hand. Mira is in the final stage of pregnancy and does not feel inclined to discuss the baby’s father. Her traditional parents make an attempt at accepting this, but at the same time they seek the services of a spirited matchmaker. Bizarre suitors keep showing up at Mira’s doorstep, but she turns every single one down, protesting her parents’ efforts and sinking ever more into desperation as she no longer belongs to this mindset. She ends up giving birth to a baby with Chinese features which causes a full-blown scandal in the small provincial hospital. The father is shocked and hurt and Mira has to leave along with her newborn. When she comes back after a few years with the little boy, her father is on his deathbed with lung cancer and the two finally bond and make their peace.

sorry for kung fuThe narrative line of this film is entirely stripped down and minimalistic: we follow Mira from her arrival to her departure in a series of scenes that function almost as tableaux. Sviličić is a great storyteller and in a chain of linear scenes that provide the basic set-up he builds an organic narrative whole that draws the spectator in despite a certain amount of restraint and distance. It may be relevant to mention that this film preceded the so-called stream of slow cinema which is currently rather visible at the festivals and in independent films in general. In Europe, for instance, the leader in this category is Romanian film, and this same tendency can also be observed now in Croatian cinematography, in particular with younger directors and in debut short films by the students graduating from the Zagreb Academy of Dramatic Art.

The basic feature of this orientation is minimal use of stylistic devices, a prevalence of lengthy medium shots without camera movement, with an imperfect perspective on the subject or scene. The focus of the dramaturgy is on everyday and accidental situations, and dialogues are measured and not subordinated to the spectator’s understanding of the story. In Sviličić’s films we see an inclination towards the same stylistic choices and narrative approaches. From the very beginning he plays with the bleakness and ruggedness of the landscape which is often shown in long shots with characters who appear small and lost in the harsh and barren terrain.

sorry for kung fuIn addition, Sviličić tends to depart from a customary organization of dialogic scenes in which he does not show close-ups of the characters, but prefers a broader perspective. There are instances when the central character has his back turned towards the camera or the vision of the scene is not ideal. Similarly, the editing cuts are deliberately rougher. It is unfortunate that Sviličić is not consistent when it comes to his directorial decisions and after deliberate minimalism in some segments of the film there follow scenes with an almost sit-com perspective such as unmotivated camera drives, close-ups when a character makes a humorous remark, a spot-like shot of the matchmaker’s expensive car, etc. A similar mixed approach is visible sometimes in the dialogues and characterization. Dialogues are elliptical on occasion and cut short just as the shots are, but sometimes they reveal the type of humor we saw in his Wish I Were a Shark where the primitivism and customs of the region are foregrounded. This at times makes the supporting characters into one-dimensional caricatures, and dialogues resonate with replicas from a TV series. Luckily there are not many such moments in the film and for the most part they surface in scenes with Mira’s suitors of whom one is childishly silly, another a covert Muslim (nearly forced by Mira’s father to take his pants down), and yet another, mildly retarded.
 
sorry for kung fuThese infrequent forays into uni-dimensionality are saved by the actors whose performances are subtle, and this especially goes for Darija Lorenci about whose character we actually don’t know much and who keeps silent most of the time. This, however, does not prevent the spectator from empathizing with her. We could say the same for Filip Radoš, an actor who became known for his comical interpretations of people with a backwoods mentality. He manages to subdue his character adequately, creating a touching portrait in this film of a man who is slowly losing his race with time and has to watch his system of values disappear before his very eyes.

The plot of the film revolves around what is essentially a socio-ethnological problem: how a “undeveloped” environment lives up to challenges that fly in the face of its entrenched values. Sviličić does not fall victim to setting forth any theory. At all levels this remains a story about individuals with a narrative line that is simple, stripped-down, and devoid of the author’s commentary or any type of ancillary connotations. The plot is essentially tailored to the contours of the characters and in a sense follows their own simplicity. Precisely because of this quality it might be fruitful to apply the literary category of free indirect speech to this film. Although in the third person singular and seemingly neutral, the narration is marked with the character’s cognitive processes, his/her beliefs and even speech habits. In the case of Sviličić’s film the camera shows the action in an ostensibly unbiased manner, however directorial choices such as broad un-empathetic angles, absence of camera movement, abrupt editing, barren landscape and an ugly gray set of interiors correspond to the characters’ consciousness and the general mindset of the region. One has a sense therefore that the very texture of the film was filtered through the minds of the highlanders. Sviličić speaks of them by coloring his stylistic choices with their vision of the world.
 
Three years after his Sorry for Kung Fu Croatian filmgoers eagerly expected Sviličić’s film Armin (2007) which, in terms of the author’s Weltanschauung, is rather similar to its predecessor, although its realization differs substantially. Armin was quite successful in movie theaters and at various film festivals, and perhaps the only criticism one could voice from a dramaturgical point of view is that it would have been better off as a mid-length feature.
 
arminArmin could be compared to the films of Mike Leigh more readily than to those of slow cinema. In this film, just as in Mike Leigh's, we cannot speak of a marked directorial stylization. The shots are simplistic, one might even say they underscore the aesthetics of the ugly, while the visual style is unmarked with stress on the mise-en-scène.  Compositionally, the perspective is subordinated to the action. The dramaturgy is linear just as it is in Sorry for Kung Fu and it unfolds around a trip to Zagreb undertaken by a father and a son. The opening of the story picks them up and the end drops them off at exactly the same location. The plot centers on their relationship, their failure to communicate, as well as the father’s inadaptability to the big city. They set off from a small Bosnian town for Zagreb so that the son, Armin, can audition at a hotel for a west European film crew which is preparing a film on the Bosnian war. Sviličić reaches again here for a mindset as the framework for the film (instead of Leigh’s English working class these are Bosnians lost in Zagreb).

The irony is twofold: wealthy and alienated westerners shoot a film on the war in Bosnia, while the audition takes place in Zagreb which, with its cold and modern contours, appears to two Bosnians to be an extension of Western Europe. The father-son pair feels out of place although the film-in-film is supposed to be about people exactly like them. In the end, the principal role is given not to an authentic actor, but to a boy whose father is depicted as a typical snobbish dweller of Zagreb. Despite the rejection, Armin’s father insists that the film crew at least give Armin a chance and hear him play his accordion. Reluctantly, they agree, but during the performance Armin has an epileptic seizure. Perplexed by this unexpected situation, the western director offers to make a documentary about the young man's illness which was worsened by the war, but Armin and his father firmly turn this offer down.

arimnFor the sake of metatextual interpretation, we should mention an external detail: Sviličić spotted Armin Omerović (the young actor playing the part of Armin in the film) at an audition for Branko Schmidt’s film The Melon Route when he came from Bosnia with his father. This real-life event was used by Sviličić as the core for the project. For a moment we may be tempted to think that Sviličić condescends towards his character just as does the director in the movie who wishes to make a film about Armin. On second thought, however, we see that the real director ironizes his position through self-reflection in the character of the foreign director eager to make a film about “a sorry human fate” (similarly, just as the putative film, Armin is a Croatian-Bosnian-German coproduction).

Mike Leigh’s films are recalled not only in connection to the style, but also because of the problems between father and son, who are emotionally deprived and fail to establish a valid relationship up to the point when they are both rejected and thus forced into an emotional catharsis. Sviličić employs a typical Leigh-style relationship between parent and child in which the former is touchingly lost while the latter has an almost animal-like aggression and lack of articulation owing to his own helplessness and failure to assimilate. One need only recall relationships between fathers and sons in Leigh’s titles such as Meantime, All or Nothing, or relationships between mothers and daughters such as in his films Life Is Sweet and Secrets and Lies. The incompatibility of the characters is doubly underscored in Sviličić’s film because of their otherness (Bosnians in Zagreb). The undercurrent that juxtaposes the two different milieus and perceptions of the world, provincial and westernized-urban, is thus present also in this film and becomes more palpable in the scenes of the father and the son in the cold hotel environment, the father admiring McDonalds, or buying a drink for complete strangers who mock him, or lighting up a cigarette at breakfast in an expensive non-smoking establishment. Luckily Sviličić escapes creating stereotypes. For instance Emir Hadžihafizbegović, the actor who plays the role of Armin’s father, has been perceived in contemporary Croatian popular culture as the embodiment of a typical Bosnian (from various sitcoms to commercials), but in this film he depicts clashes of mentalities with great emotional subtlety. 

arminIn this contemplation of Zagreb as an alienated westernized metropolis one could perhaps object to the occasional long shot of the urban skyline or exteriors of the sterile-looking hotel which serve as superfluous directorial comments and slow down the action unnecessarily. Another objection, as pointed out earlier, is the length of the film which contributes to dramaturgical imbalance. Considering that the film relies on classical structure rather than a more meditative slow-cinema narration, one can pinpoint segments that could have been imbedded more firmly in the plot. For instance, the first part of the film leads to the moment of audition and generates a certain amount of tension. After Armin does not come anywhere near to being considered for the role, the viewer begins to expect a conclusion, but the film is, in fact, just half-way through. Armin’s playing of the accordion along with the epileptic seizure come as an unexpected peak. Following this, the German director in the putative film suggests making a documentary about Armin, which produces another peak-reversal-humiliation sequence just before the end.

But these minor objections aside, Sviličić appears to be a stylistically and dramaturgically thoughtful director who has introduced to Croatian film emotional subtlety particularly visible in virtuosic elliptical dialogues and stripped-down narrative structures, and who has proven to have just the right touch when it comes to a minimalistic use of stylistic devices.

Translated by Aida Vidan

Hana Jušić


Wish I Were a Shark (Da mi je biti morski pas), Croatia, 1999
Color, 75 min.
Director: Ognjen Sviličić
Script: Ognjen Sviličić
Director of Photography: Vedran Šamanović
Music: Ognjen Sviličić
Editing: Staša Čelan
Set Designer: Goran Stepan
Costumes: Ruta Knežević
Cast: Josip Zovko (Mate), Vedran Mlikota (Kristijan), Elvis Bošnjak (Ive Dumanić), Bruna Bebić-Tudor (Dode Dumanić), Edita Majić (eccentric painter), Siniša Ružić, Mate Ćurić, Ecija Ojdanić, Jasna Jukić, Vanča Kljaković, Saulle Ashimova, Ichiro Takana, Snježana Sinovčić
Production: Croatian Radiotelevision


Sorry for Kung Fu (Oprosti za kung fu),  Croatia, 2004
Color, 70 min.
Director: Ognjen Sviličić
Script: Ognjen Sviličić
Director of Photography: Vedran Šamanović
Music: Maro Merket, Ognjen Sviličić
Editing: Vjeran Pavlinić
Set Designer: Mladen Ožbolt
Costumes: Ruta Knežević
Cast: Daria Lorenci (Mira), Filip Radoš (Jozo), Vera Zima (Kate), Vedran Mlikota (Veliki), Luka Petrušić (Marko), Ivica Bašić (Mate), Yong Long Dai (boy), Josip Zovko (Ćaćo), Davor Svedružić (Begić), Zoran Ćubrilo (doctor), Jadranka Đokić (Zorica), Barbara Vicković (nurse), Mate Ćurić (Krule), Milivoj Gaće (Jović), Branimir Rakić (Tadija), Ivan Brkić (Ljubo), Jolanda Tudor (Mare), Trpimir Jukić (boy), Boženko Dedić (waiter), Marija Škaričić (woman having a baby 1), Ecija Ojdanić (woman having a baby 2), Emil Glad (patient), Jadranka Matković (Jehovah's Witness)
Production: Croatian Radiotelevision

Armin, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, 2007
Color, 82 min.
Director: Ognjen Sviličić
Script: Ognjen Sviličić
Director of Photography: Stanko Herceg
Music: Michael Bauer, Georg Karger, Peter Holzapfel, Zoran Kesić
Editing: Vjeran Pavlinić
Set Design: Mladen Ožbolt
Costumes: Blanka Budak
Cast: Emir Hadžihafizbegović (father), Armin Omerović (Armin), Marie Baumer, Barbara Prpić, Jens Munchow, Daria Lorenci, Enis Bešlagić, Ranko Zidarić
Producer: Damir Terešak, Markus Halberschmidt, Mirko Galić
Co-producers: Ademir Kenović, Marcelo Busse
Production: Maxima film, Croatian Radiotelevision

 

Ognjen Sviličić: Sorry for Kung Fu (Oprosti za kung fu, 2004) and Armin (2007)

reviewed by Hana Jušić © 2011

Updated: 19 Apr 11