Vodka Lemon: Life and comedy bloom in the ashes

Los Angeles Times
November 19, 2004 Friday
Home Edition

Movies; REVIEW ;
Life and comedy bloom in the ashes

by Kevin Thomas, Times Staff Writer

Hiner Saleem’s droll comedy “Vodka Lemon” reveals a beguiling gift
for making things happen in a place where nothing much is going on.
It is set in what looks to be the middle of nowhere — a tiny village
in a vast snow-covered valley in rural Armenia. The nearest post
office is in a town a bus ride away. This scattering of rough-hewn
roadside cabins in the deep of winter resembles a near-abandoned
mining town in the Old West.

In a post-Soviet present as harsh as the climate, the inhabitants in
fact feel abandoned themselves. One neighbor remarks that democracy
has given the people freedom, but his friend points out that the
Communists gave them everything else. Now everyone has to pay for
gas, electricity and oil while the community hovers near a bare
subsistence level. Except for a passing shepherd and his flock, no
one seems to be working, nor do there seem to be any job
opportunities whatsoever. Clearly, the younger generation is fleeing
— and much of it has already fled.

That includes one of the sons of Hamo Isko (Romen Avinian), who has
sought a better life in Paris. (Another is off in Samarkand,
Uzbekistan, and the other stays home and drinks.) Hamo is a striking
patriarchal figure, a ruggedly handsome, silver-haired, bearded man
of military bearing; he looks to be a fit 70 or thereabouts. His
service pension is the equivalent of $7 a month, and some of the
film’s rueful humor derives from him selling by the roadside his
three absolutely nonessential possessions: a country-style armoire
with folk art decorations that in many other places would fetch a
fancy sum but yields only $10 for Hamo; an old TV, which may or may
not work; and Hamo’s military camouflage uniform. (The sale of the
armoire to a passing couple triggers a comic sequence worthy of the
classic silent comedians.)

With nothing much to do, Hamo spends a lot of time visiting the
cemetery where his recently deceased wife is buried. He notices that
an attractive woman, Nina (Lala Sarkissian), visits the grave of her
late husband with much frequency. Gradually they take note of each
other. The attraction is mutual, but Hamo is beset by the feeling
that he must be loyal to his wife’s memory, and Nina is overcome even
more strongly by shyness. As Saleem, a long-exiled Iraqi Kurd, wends
his way through amusing incidents and various subplots, he generates
hope that romance may find a way to blossom between two people who
have so little in life outside of, potentially, each other.

“Vodka Lemon” is an appealingly wry little film that is as appetizing
as its title, which is the name of a roadside liquor stand where Nina
works. Saleem, whose fourth film this is, ends on a note of inspired
whimsy that has aptly been compared to a magical image by Marc
Chagall.

*

‘Vodka Lemon’

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Suitable for older children

Romen Avinian…Hamo

Lala Sarkissian…Nina

Ivan Franek…Dilovan

Ruzan Mesropyan…Zine

A New Yorker Films release. Writer-director Hiner Saleem. Producer
Fabrice Guez. Executive producer Michel Loro. Cinematographer
Christophe Pollock. Editor Dora Mantzorou. Music Michel Korb.
Production designer Albert Hamarsh. In Armenian, Russian and Kurdish,
with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (at Faifax
Avenue), (323) 655-4010; and the One Colorado, 42 Miller Alley (at
Colorado Boulevard), Pasadena, (626) 844-6500.

GRAPHIC: PHOTO: POOR CASH FLOW: Hamo, played by Romen Avinian, tries
to sell his armoire by the road in his post-Soviet Armenia village.
PHOTOGRAPHER: New Yorker Films

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