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A Balkan Noir

Bosnian-born, Sweden-based film-maker Drazen Kuljanin debuted his first feature film, How to Stop a Wedding, in 2014. Now, he is back with his second feature, A Balkan Noir, which not only shows Kuljanin’s progression as a director, employing several noir techniques, but it’s also a very well-made, intense thriller.

The film is primarily about Nina, a chain-smoking woman whose young daughter went missing while on a family vacation in Montenegro five years ago. Despite the lengthy investigations that followed and the fact Nina wrote a book about the ordeal with her husband, Oskar, she can’t move on with her life until she finds her daughter, who she assumes is just missing. Oskar, on the other hand, has accepted his daughter has likely passed away and is doing his best to move on with his life. The story of Nina’s inner struggle intertwines with the equally-struggling Montenegrin detective who initially worked on the case and is also unable to let go until he finds the missing child. Still, though the trail has long gone cold, he alerts Nina every time there’s a new lead, and Nina travels to Montenegro every time. This time, however, is much more promising, and Nina ventures on a quest to exert justice in the old-fashioned manner of an eye for an eye. Oskar reluctantly joins her, having doubts of his own.

A Balkan Noir is a visually beautiful film, and Kuljanin has used several techniques to make sure this isn’t just another crime story. The scenes are separated with these short, black-and-white snippets of ads from the 1950s for Lucky Smoke cigarettes. Taking up about a quarter of the screen, these bubbly, surreal ads work effectively to build tension in the main story and provide a kind of nostalgia or longing for the past, which connects nicely to Nina’s own longing to find her child. The camerawork, editing and plot convey Nina’s mindscape; much of the narrative is disjointed, and it’s hard to tell what’s a flashback or which country the characters are in. This creates a dreamlike quality and a sense of mindless wandering, which is no doubt reflected back on Nina. The pacing revolves around the cigarettes, with the tagline being ‘a story told in 29 cigarettes’ and Nina and the detective regularly lighting up. Combined with the ads, it also creates this illusion of reality, and the hard truths surrounding smoking. Besides rage and revenge, Nina seems fuelled by tobacco as she, and the supporting characters, display an ever-increasing penchant for smokes. Music is also a strong element in the film. Kuljanin also uses old Yugoslav covers of classic pop songs, which also effectively add to the nostalgia theme. Music is chosen carefully in the film, and there’s a wonderfully directed karaoke scene that oozes depression. The film ends with a cover of an ABBA song, which Kuljanin said in a Q&A cost half the film’s budget. I’m glad he included it; it’s a perfect way to end the film.

Kuljanin really shows that he is a proficient director, and this makes for an effective thriller. Considering that Kuljanin had to take out a bank loan to fund the film after being rejected by the funding bodies, which was shot in seven days in Montenegro and two days in Sweden, demonstrates that this is a true passion for him, and it really shocks me that this film was unable to gain proper funding. Hopefully, it is shown at more festivals, and Kuljanin’s career is able to take off.

This review is in the March issue of Cinema Scandinavia. 

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Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.