It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Broken English'' opens with news footage of the devastation in Croatia, and then it is three years later, and we are in the green, quiet land of New Zealand. A family of Croatians, allowed to emigrate because the mother was born in New Zealand, has moved there. And far from home, the father enforces his unyielding standards on his family: He uses a baseball bat to chase off a man who is necking with one of his daughters.
Fathers who have a jealous obsession with the sex lives of their grown daughters are not new to the movies. But "Broken English'' is about more than that. It is about ethnic identity transferred to a place where it cannot be nurtured. The father, named Ivan (Rade Serbedzija), still nurses old wounds, and lingers over videotapes from home. He does not want his daughters to associate with the local men--but who else, really, is there for them to date? The story focuses on Nina (Aleksandra Vujcic), who likes to dress in sexy clothes. She works in a Chinese restaurant, where she's attracted to the Maori cook named Eddie (Julian Arahanga). They fall into a passionate relationship. Meanwhile, Ivan broods about the wrongs done to his people and is angered even when the pope visits the war zone to ask for peace and forgiveness. "We've left that madness behind,'' his wife cries. But Ivan has not.
He brings his old mother over from Croatia and holds a feast to welcome her. Nina asks if she can bring "a friend,'' and Ivan, who has briefly met Eddie, says she can. But resentment against this man of another race is obviously brewing, and when Nina also turns up at the party with two Chinese friends, Ivan says his party has been invaded by "a bloody UN peacekeeping force.'' As the Croatian music plays in Ivan's backyard, another festival with music is going on next door in the yard of a large Maori family. The Maoris of course have been in New Zealand longer than anybody else, which does not prevent Ivan from resenting the racket they're making. And then Ivan gets a surprise: Although Nina is dating Eddie, she has agreed to marry the Chinese man, who will pay her $16,000 because marriage will give him citizenship. When the would-be groom unwisely drinks too much and announces this fact to Ivan, there is a brief, brutal moment of violence that sets up the final passages of the film.
Like the powerful "Once Were Warriors,'' this film is about how old wounds cause new ones, and about male sexual jealousy mixed with alcoholism. The situation is not original, but the setting makes it seem so, and the director and co-writer, Gregor Nicholas, is alert to nuances of the characters.