Sunday, September 6, 2009


Dusan Milic's film, for which his more famous compatriot Emir Kusturica gets much of the credit internationally as the producer, is a romantic comedy about an aggressive or perhaps pre-emptive case of Stockholm Syndrome. It's also a send-up of that durable modern genre, the sympathetic hostage taker film. There's a lot of specific Serbian context to the film, but not so much that it gets inaccessible for the rest of us, and a lot of the material will seem familiar to anyone familiar with films from Dog Day Afternoon to Cadillac Man to the more recent JCVD.

Jagoda is a cashier at the newly-opened Yugo-American Supermarket, whose hard-charging entrepreneurial owner promises her people that they'll slog hard on the job like real Americans. The gimmick is that the store sells American products and is designed along American lines, though they don't seem to have the latest bar-code technology. American consumer goods (and those of other lands) are confusing to older folk. One old-timer can't figure out how to tell the freshness of some Euro-equivalent of Cadbury eggs, for instance. Jagoda and a fellow-cashier both have eyes on the handsome Nebojsa, and when the other woman gets the advantage, Jagoda takes her frustration out on the last customer of the night, an old lady who wants to buy strawberries to bake a cake for her grandson. Too late, Jagoda says, the store is closed. When the granny persists, she snatches the strawberries out of her hand. The old woman shuffles out the door bemoaning what's become of the country.

Business is booming the next morning, not only for the store but for a pair of shoplifters, until a man forces his way through defective automated doors and starts firing a machine gun. This is one pissed-off dude, but what about? It seems some store clerk was mean to his grandma last night, and he's here to protest the injustice. The helpful owner asks him to point the offender out so she can be fired on the spot, but the gunman didn't get a description from granny. Jagoda isn't about to give herself away, but from that point she decides to be the most ingratiating hostage possible, wrapping up her co-workers with plastic wrap and allowing herself to be displayed at gunpoint as the police gather at the scene.

Along the way she'll help him thwart several attempts to disarm him or end the crisis, while outside a modern "democratic" cop, who is in fact the man Jagoda was pining over last night, bickers with a veteran blood-and-guts style SWAT commander over the proper tactics for dealing with the madman. With the police come crowds, and true to cinematic form they're 100% on the hostage-taker's side, heckling the cops at every opportunity while a brass band performs a kick-ass cover of The Clash's "Lost in the Supermarket" that also serves as the film's theme song. Some of this may be popular anti-Americanism aimed at the Yugo-American store, but I think Milic is simply acknowledging the generic fact that this is how crowds behave in films like this.

With increasing improbability Jagoda and her captor, whose name is Marko, thwart several attempts to storm the store, sending some subdued SWAT troops rolling down a ramp in grocery carts in one comical highlight. Even more improbably, Jagoda finds herself falling for the really rather hapless Marko, who builds himself up as a badass warrior from the civil war years but turns out to have been a company cook. There's a cute moment when he reveals his culinary skill inside the store that's a reverse of the Last Kiss Goodnight scenario (in which prowess with knives hints at more deadly talents); when he shows himself to be an excellent food chopper, that's because that's exactly what he is.

A film like this shouldn't be too long, and Milic's may be by just a bit, but overall he does a good job adding fresh complications to the situation, from the arrival of a veteran sniper and the reappearance of the shoplifters to the jaw-dropping threat to deploy "PSYCHO bombs" against our heroes. It ends up being rather a feel-good film, ending on a note of reconciliation between the rival lawmen and their implicit political positions as well as a rash act of commitment on Jagoda's part when the siege finally ends. Jagoda (her name means "strawberry," by the way) is the sort of satire that takes no sides but takes relatively gentle pot shots at everything from American culture to Serbia's recent authoritarian past. It's a genuine popular film from Serbia rather than something designed for the global art-house audience, and it gets a modest recommendation here for tourists in the wild world of cinema.

Producer Kusturica, playing an on-screen general, gives himself one of the movie's best lines.

No trailer for Jagoda is available either online or on the Cinequest DVD, which is also handicapped by a lack of chaptering. The entire film can apparently be seen on Veoh, but I don't know if it has English subtitles or not. My copy came from the Albany Public Library, and your local facility may have one as well.

No comments: