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Chicago Tribune

'Lana' Faces Immigrant Woes

By Michael Wilmington, Tribune movie critic

February 27, 2004
Copyright ©2004
Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

"Lana's Rain," by first-time Chicago writer-director Michael Ojeda, uses the great recurring American movie theme of immigrants arriving in the big American cities to both good and bad advantage.

This ambitious independent film--made by Chicagoans and locally shot, produced and distributed (by ISA Releasing of "Hoop Dreams" note)--borrows a subject our movies have used since Chaplin and Griffith. It's about how newcomers either adjust to the "promised land" of the big cities or succumb to the bewildering maze of grit, danger and opportunity they inevitably discover here.

And though "Lana's Rain" has flaws, it also shows talent and promise, qualities it shares with its two immigrant protagonists and the actors who play them.

Ojeda, a strong filmmaker but less deft as a writer, here tells the story of Bosnian Croatian refugee siblings Lana and Darko Lucev (Oksana Orlenko and Nikolai Stoilov) and their encounter with America--a meeting that becomes as grim and violent as the chaos of war-torn '90s Bosnia they left behind.

Darko is a criminal kingpin who dealt in drugs and hookers, and has old Bosnian cronies on his trail. Lana is a gutsy, sweet young woman mostly ignorant of her brother's activities--until he forces her out onto the streets herself. The actors who play these roles, Orlenko and Stoilov, hail from the Ukraine and Bulgaria, respectively. They easily suggest their characters' Balkan backgrounds and they're fluid and natural in either the Croatian or English language scenes.

Both also have searing screen presence and Orlenko, who won the Milan Film Festival best actress prize for Lana, seems a genuine find. Stoilov, though, with his soiled young dirty-rebel look, often seems too young for Darko. Ojeda based his plot on a real-life father-daughter team, and he might have been wise to stick closer to that original--to make Darko tougher, older and less of a scruffy pretty boy. At times, the gifted Stoilov looks more like the impetuous young hanger-on to a criminal kingpin, rather than a heavy-duty pimp-dealer himself.

But Orlenko, a native Ukrainian film actress and Chicago model making her first American film, looks perfect and plays her scenes with a white-hot intensity and electricity, even when Ojeda turns on the cliches, bringing on kindly Good Samaritan Julian (Louyong Wang) or the Bosnian mob. She has the natural actress' ability to immerse herself in the story, even when the dialogue is formula stuff and the situations creak. It's a pleasure to watch her.

It's also a pleasure to watch this film's cityscapes. If you're tired of watching Chicago-set movies actually shot in either Montreal or Toronto, "Lana's Rain" is a good antidote. As Lana is plunged into the hurly-burly of the city's high-rises and lower depths (it was shot on 80 locations here and overseas), we get stinging insights into how a strange land looks to its newcomers.

But we also, by the end, get a cargo of action movie cliches. Rather than his stated influences--Luc Besson's "La Femme Nikita" and the sleek Chicago thrillers "Thief" and "The Fugitive"--Ojeda might have been better off studying "Mean Streets" and hiring a Chicago playwright to punch up the dialogue. Ojeda, a gifted Columbia College product whose parents have immigrant backgrounds--his father from Puerto Rico and his mother the child of Polish Jewish refugees--might also be better off, next time, forgetting the mob movie and action cliches and telling his parents' story.

On the other hand, this genuinely ambitious and accomplished Chicago production does have strong points, not the least of which is Lana herself. When the fiery, emotionally transparent Orlenko lets her talent and presence pour down on "Lana's Rain," the movie springs to life.

'Lana's Rain'

Directed, written and edited by Michael S. Ojeda; photographed by Gennadi Balitski; production designed by Lorianne Olsen; music by William Brown; co-produced by Misty Tosh, Max Kuhar; produced by Joel Goodman. An ISA Releasing release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:47. No MPAA rating. Adult, for language, sensuality, drug use and violence.

Lana Lucev .............. Oksana Orlenko

Darko Lucev ............ Nikolai Stoilov

Julian ........................ Louyong Wang

Katrina ..................... Stephanie Childers

The General .............. David Darlow

Lou ........................... Ron Dean

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