Branko Schmidt: The Melon Route (Put Lubenica, 2006) and Metastases (Metastaze, 2009)

reviewed by Zhen Zhang © 2011

melon routeThose who have viewed Branko Schmidt’s recent films for the first time, The Melon Route (Put Lubenica, 2006) and Metastases (Metastaze, 2009), will undoubtedly experience these two films as “depressing,” “edgy,” “odd,” “dark” and so on.  Yet, despite the bleak feelings aroused by the two films, they have not failed in attracting the audiences’ attention and appreciation. The Melon Route won the Grand Prix at the international Slow Film Festival in Eger, Hungary, and Metastases won the Golden Arena of Pula, which is the Croatian equivalent of the American Academy Award (Oscar).  

The story of The Melon Route is set in a desolate place near the river Sava, located on the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, where people, mostly Chinese, are smuggled to the West. At the film’s opening, and with soft, somber and low-pitched background music, the main figure Mirko (Krešimir Mikić), sitting in the dark and holding a half-burned cigarette between index and middle finger, motionless and listless, keeps switching the ceiling lamp on and off rhythmically and unstoppably. Here, the shimmering light in the darkness and the flagging, dispirited Mirko set the basic tone of the film’s cinematography and atmosphere—colorless and bleak. The storyline of the film is simple. During the winter, a group of Chinese is transported to the Sava river area and waiting to be smuggled to Croatia and onwards to the West. Due to the overburdened boat and the panic among the passengers, the skiff overturns as Mirko is ferrying them to the Croatian side. Consequently, only Mirko and a Chinese woman (Sun Mei) survive while all others drown in the accident. Mirko decides to hide the woman in the basement of his cabin, and gradually his life begins to change under her influence despite the linguistic barrier. When the local mafia kidnaps her (because she is a witness of the Chinese people’s drowning), Mirko reverts to his past as a soldier, takes the guns out of the storage, goes to the mafia men’s place and kills them all. In the end, the Chinese woman and the gypsy boy, who is Mirko’s sole friend, are sent by him en route to Germany while wounded Mirko stays behind in his dwelling.

melon routeThe most interesting relationship of the film, which is also particularly well portrayed, is the one between Mirko and the nameless Chinese woman. The audiences can clearly sense the gradual strengthening of the relationship between the two strangers, from initial indifference or even hatred to mutual understanding and assistance. Schmidt deals with the details very carefully. At first, when the Chinese woman and Mirko are catching their breath on the riverbank after the failed ferrying across the river, the Chinese woman grabs the mud on the ground and flings it at Mirko with animosity, seeing him as her parent’s murderer. Later, she finds her father’s body in the river and takes a spade from Mirko in order to bury the dead man; Mirko approaches her and snatches the spade from her despite her distrustfulness and hostility, while she even spits at him; he then begins to dig the grave for her father, without a word. At night, when he comes back to his dwelling and sees her sleeping in his bed, he indicates to her the direction of the door and forces her out, again, silently. Curling herself up in a deserted car for another night, she is so hungry and exhausted the next day that she breaks into Mirko’s cabin for shelter and food, and after that a mutual peaceful and increasingly affectionate coexistence begins. Mirko even grins, for the first time in the movie, when the gypsy boy makes a bantering remark about his “wife” who said something in Chinese. This segment is not translated into any other language, but from the body language it is clear that the relationship has undergone a profound transformation. The Chinese woman actually says: “I totally understand. You don’t have much money, either. But don’t worry. I will return your money when I am in Germany.” She has, seemingly, forgiven him. He starts to change too: he starts shaving, actively seeks a way to get her to Germany, and lets her sleep in his bed. Through the Chinese woman’s eyes, the audiences get a wider scope of Mirko’s earlier life: when she is randomly flipping over his personal pictures, we see Mirko’s happy youth with his parents and friends, as well as his days in the army.

melon routeThe director does not forget to emphasize the linguistic and cultural misunderstandings between them: Mirko bursts out laughing by the river, spurred by his own memories and experience of the place; the Chinese woman misunderstands him because he is laughing where her father dies, which is a blasphemy of the dead in Chinese tradition. The climax of their relationship seems to be the moment when the Chinese woman holds Mirko’s hand voluntarily and silently. Due to the complete absence of verbal understanding between the two main figures, the director focuses on the close-ups of their faces, hands, etc., and different shooting angles, to show a subtle change in their hearts, which, in my opinion, was successfully conveyed. The reason for their mutual attraction is not difficult to grasp: Mirko is a traumatized veteran who lost almost everything in the war, including passion and desire for a new life; on the contrary, the Chinese woman, despite all the misfortunes that happened to her, is passionate and determined to emigrate to Germany in search of a better life. The taciturn, poor Mirko arouses the compassion of the Chinese woman, who, as we can imagine, is equivalently poor back home. Schmidt deliberately emphasizes the silence between the two main characters, which, in the era of sound films, relocates the audiences back into the age of silent movies and forces them to refocus on body gestures, facial expressions and wordless acting, namely, on the nature of the early films. 

melon routeAside from illegal immigration and human trafficking, the film also depicts other social problems, such as organized crime in the post-war Croatia and Bosnia, prejudice against the Roma people and corruption at the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. Mirko’s only real friend— a sympathetic and benevolent Roma boy, who steals food and trades pirate CDs for a living, is caught and badly beaten by the local gangsters. The local policeman takes bribes from the amoral traffickers. The gangsters kidnap the Chinese woman and brandish their guns. And, for a Chinese viewer such as myself, it is of course painful to see our compatriots being smuggled to the West and shown no mercy or sympathy; on the other hand, it is the undeniable truth that poor Chinese are eagerly seeking a better life in the West by illegal border-crossing.

The portrayal of a few soccer fans—hooligans captured in the film Metastases, might make the Croatian audiences uncomfortable just as much as the themes from Schmidt’s other film do. Yet, by touching on the fringes of the society, the director successfully portrays some of the bleak realities of contemporary Croatia—and how the war and its aftermath have damaged people.
metastasesMetastases centers on four problematic young men in contemporary Zagreb, Croatia, who seem to have nothing to do except exhibit their fanatical fervor for the Zagreb’s soccer club NK Dinamo, consume huge amounts of alcohol and sometimes drugs, and involve themselves in robberies, irrational fighting and domestic violence. Schmidt depicts the everyday lives of Filip (Franjo Dijak), Krpa (Rene Bitorajac), Dejo (Rakan Rushaidat), and Kizo (Robert Ugrina) sequentially; the four segments are separated by intertitles and integrated in the final scene of NK Dinamo’s soccer match. Filip has just returned to Zagreb from a Spanish drug rehabilitation commune and is urged to find a job by his father before being dragged back by his peers into the old ways of living—though he is the only person in the group who tries to deviate from the old ways. Krpa is a perpetual wife-abuser and ferociously nationalistic man often irritated by Dejo’s Serbian ethnicity. Kizo is an alcoholic always in search of another drink, in a state of constant and palpable mental fog, who finally dies from his alcoholism. Yet, in a gentle moment when Kizo feeds homeless cats near his house, we may perceive a kind, fragile, vulnerable and sensitive heart that Kizo has. In order to satisfy his heroin addiction, Dejo, deluded by the drug at all times, smuggles heroin from Bosnia, and is finally caught by the police when he is smuggling drugs over the border. 

metastasesThe director makes every effort to portray the real life of the people on the margins of contemporary Croatia. The narrative line is relatively simple and minimal and exhibits a certain “lack of plot” or “narrative emptiness,” which results in the documentary feel of the film. It also indicates the shared characteristic of the portrayed characters—an emptiness and idleness of soul connected to irrational anger, substance abuse, and predictable behavior. The shooting technique, the hand-held camera and dialogues imbued with elliptic utterances and with vulgar talking and much swearing augment this sense of a documentary-like recording— the film’s scenes seem to be shot so randomly that they appear as if taken in the genuine environment of a Zagreb neighborhood. 
metastasesBoth Schmidt’s films are relatively short, although Metastases is shorter of the two. Perhaps the director understood that viewers would simply not tolerate for very long this kind of the film texture, with all the vulgar talk and unpleasant behavior. On the other hand, the director successfully depicts the reality of this environment, the intensity of its aimlessness, emptiness, and frustration. The extreme chauvinism is shown clearly, as still having its adherents in modern Croatia and as connected to this kind of an environment. People attempt to live peacefully after the war, yet, the scar of the war has never gone away—hatred, anger, violence… The post-war trauma is no less lethal than the war itself.

From the perspective of narrative and shooting techniques, The Melon Route is more “artistic” and stylized while Metastases more realistic and gritty. Some audiences might object to the “coldness” and “seriousness” of Branko Schmidt’s films, but they would be missing the point. Instead of trying to entertain the viewers, Branko Schmidt pays close attention to the marginalized part of society, and makes excellent, passionate and precise films which resonate far beyond Croatian borders.

Zhen Zhang

The Melon Route (Put Lubenica), Croatia, 2006
Color, 89 min.
Director: Branko Schmidt
Script: Branko Schmidt, Ognjen Sviličić
Director of Photography: Vjekoslav Vrdoljak              
Music: Miroslav Škoro           
Editing: Vesna Lažeta   
Set Designer: Mladen Ožbolt
Costumes: Željka Franulović
Cast: Krešimir Mikić (Mirko), Mei Sun (Chinese girl), Leon Lučev (Šeki), Armin Omerović (Meho), Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Gojko), Ivo Gregurević (Cale), Slobodan Maksimović (Edo), Zijah Sokolović (Pauk), Darijo Veličan (handicapped man), Elena Dlesk (Russian girl 1), Dora Lipovčan (Russian girl 2), Filip Šovagović (Lak), Iljo Benković Drča (Kolega), Chen Samin (the old Chinese man), Marella Oppenheim (translator)  
Producer: Stanislav Babić
Production:  Croatian Radiotelevision and Telefilm

Metastases (Metastaze), Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, 2009
Color, 85 min.
Director: Branko Schmidt
Script: Ognjen Sviličić, (based on the novel by Ivo Balenović)
Director of Photography: Dragan Ruljančić       
Production designer: Mladen Ožbolt
Editing: Vesna Lažeta, Hrvoje Mršić               
Costumes: Željka Franulović    
Cast: Rene Bitorajac (Krpa), Franjo Dijak (Filip), Robert Ugrina (Kizo), Rakan Rushaidat (Dejo), Jadranka Djokić (Krpa’s wife), Ivo Gregurević (Filip’s father), Ljiljana Bogojević (Filip’s mother), Daria Lorenci (Milica), Predrag Vušović (Dejo’s father), Ksenija Marinković (Kizo’s mother), Vera Zima (Aunt Zora), Ivan Brkić (Uncle Brane), Emir Hadžihafizbegović (Reuf), Franjo Jurčec  (Krpa’s neighbor)
Producer: Stanislav Babić,
Production: Telefilm in association with Croatian Radiotelevision, Refresh Production (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and Lux film (Serbia)


Branko Schmidt: The Melon Route (Put Lubenica, 2006) and Metastases (Metastaze, 2009)

reviewed by Zhen Zhang © 2011

Updated: 20 Apr 11