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New Release Review - TANGERINES

A carpenter and a tangerine grower shelter two wounded opposing soldiers.


Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)

Directed by: Zaza Urushadze

Starring: Lembit Ulfsak, Elmo Nuganen, Giorgi Nakashidze, (Mikheil Meskhi)




"While it's a scenario we've seen countless times before, several factors make Tangerines taste as fresh as its titular fruit, and writer-director Zaza Urushadze proves that the world is a big enough place to provide enough variations on a theme for a long time to come."





Few fables have proven as influential in fiction as Saki's short story The Interlopers, a tale of two enemies who find themselves pinned under a tree and come to reconcile their differences through their shared plight. It's a template that's been reworked for various movies. Frank Sinatra's sole directorial effort, None But the Brave sees rival American and Japanese WWII platoons forced to work together to survive being stranded on a small Pacific island. John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific scales it back to a single representative of the American and Japanese militaries in the form of Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. Wolfgang Peterson gave it a sci-fi twist with Enemy Mine, stranding Dennis Quaid's human and Louis Gosset Jr's alien on a barely inhabitable planet. It's in TV that Saki's concept has been most utilised; there are few shows that can boast not employing the narrative device at some point in their run. Who can forget JR and Bobby stuck in an elevator at the height of their animosity, or the respective mothers of a killer and his victim thrown together in a Baltimore police department waiting room in one of Homicide: Life on the Street's most powerful episodes?
Saki's influence can once again be found in Tangerines. Set at the outbreak of the 1992 Abkhazian war, the film introduces us to a pair of elderly Estonian settlers, Ivo (Lembit Ulfsak) and Margus (Elmo Nuganen), among the last of their people to return to their homeland in order to avoid the conflict. The two neighbours enjoy a symbiotic professional relationship - Margus grows tangerines, while carpenter Ivo builds the crates necessary to transport them. Both plan to pick the remainder of the current crop, a task they figure will take a few days, before selling them and returning to Estonia before things get too hairy.
One morning, Ivo is visited by a pair of Chechen mercenaries fighting on the Abkhazian side. After sending them off with food, his carpentry is interrupted by gunfire and explosions. One of the mercenaries is dead, while the other, Ahmed (Giorgi Nakashidze), is badly wounded. Among a bunch of bodies of Georgian fighters they find another wounded man, Niko (Mikheil Meskhi). Ivo and Margus bring the two men home, providing food, bedding and care, all too aware that when the two men return to health they will likely resume hostilities.
While it's a scenario we've seen countless times before, several factors make Tangerines taste as fresh as Margus's titular fruit. The performances of the central quartet - all new faces to this reviewer as they will be to 99% of viewers - really sell this tale. Michael Haneke lookalike Ulfsak has a face you instantly warm to, while Nakashidze is a big bear of an actor who dominates every scene he appears in without ever resorting to show-boating.
Possibly the most crucial element is the relative ignorance most viewers will have of this conflict, allowing us to buy into the dynamic in a way we couldn't so easily were this an American GI and an SS officer paired off, for example. This distance affords us the opportunity to tut tut like a teacher breaking up a petty playground dispute. I wonder if the film works for those closer to this conflict, for whom it may see a little naive and overly idealistic. Based on the movie's stunning location, you can begin to understand why it's a land men might fight over.
Tangerines has a fifth character, though she never actually appears in the movie, save for a photograph - Ivo's daughter, who left for Estonia ahead of him. Her framed presence on Ivo's mantel becomes a beacon of hope for the men, helping ground the film in humanity while reminding us of the unique gender imbalance of war.
With Tangerines, writer-director Zaza Urushadze proves that the world is a big enough place to provide enough variations on a theme for a long time to come. Sure, you've seen the premise before, but Tangerines is more than the sum of its parts.



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