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01 April 2006

Kinamand (2004)

Bjarne Henriksen (Keld), Vivian Wu (Ling), Wu Lin Ku (Feng), Charlotte Fich (Rie)

Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz

Summary: Keld, an over- weight, uninspired Danish plumber, is alone. When his bored, frustrated wife leaves him, he begins to eat dinner at the family-run Chinese take-out across the street. Working methodically through the numbered menu, he finds an unexpected friend in Feng, a genial man with his own concerns. Keld helps fix the plumbing in the diner, and then Feng asks for assistance with another problem: his Chinese sister requires a marriage of convenience to stay in Denmark. Enter Ling (Vivan Wu), a young woman who is not at all comfortable with this "strictly pro-forma" arrangement. Over time, Ling's gentle influence brings Keld into a world of tradition, full of surprising rewards and life-changing affection. This romantic tale has the fairy tale feel of what just might happen when people fall in love.

I saw this movie last night as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival, and it proved to be quite a draw. Approximately 80% of Hilldale's large theater was full – quite impressive considering the showtime was 5pm on a Friday afternoon. But the film is so unknown that I could not find a poster image to upload here, only a publicity still from the festival's website. I also had to submit updates for the summary (above), cast information, and release dates for IMDB. Cool! I love that I have been able to contribute to the vast storehouse of information that is the Internet Movie Database.

Kinamand was wonderful. (It must be, because I have written this review three times now, and I am determined to have it praised despite blogger's attempts to make me relent.) Bjarne Henriksen performance as Keld was understated and despondent without melodrama. He seemed a man whose life had gone temporarily astray, leaving him devoid of purpose and energy, but whose vitality could be restored with the right set of circumstances (or an inspiring personal connection). Vivian Wu, probably the best-known actor to American audiences for her performances in The Pillow Book and The Joy Luck Club, had a relatively small role. Because Ling spoke no Danish, Wu's portrayal relied on body language and expressions that ranged from anxious but determined to hesitant and hopeful.

Keld and Ling could not have been more different, physically, culturally, or temperamentally. Walking together, they appeared a lumbering giant and a petite fawn – so poorly matched. But upon the maturation of their relationship, they created a wordless physical choreography that accentuated their mutual and growing affection. The music - a pastiche of Chinese instrumentals, saucy tangos, and pop songs from both languages - aided in the creation of this dance. The man who refused to take a dance class with his ex-wife, on the pretense that his bad shoulder troubled him too greatly, tried his best to learn Ling's tai-chi. He worked to regain his foothold in life and offer her security, while her gentle presence gave him reason to try.

Of course, there was the obligatory "learning chopsticks" scene and the raucous foreign wedding reception, but these fish out of water conventions were made new through two techniques. First, only the Danish dialogue and Keld's poor attempts at Mandarin were translated. Because the film was almost entirely from Keld's perspective, all of the language from the Chinese characters remained a mystery. Ling's single, furious outburst served to leave every non-Chinese viewer with an understanding that her frustration has reached its maximum, but without the particulars of language. All Keld knows is that he should apologize… which he does… badly, in Chinese.

Second, Genz used color - be it in clothing, surroundings, or furnishings - to lend the two leads an extra level of characterization. Ling is all brightness, patterns, and detail, whereas Keld exists in a meager, monotonous world of blue-washed overexposure. As their lives come together, these differences in color are muted and melded until the distinction is neither easy nor important.

Despite the rather contrived ending, which must have been the only conclusion the Danish (read: dreary) director could think to give their unconventional relationship, I thoroughly enjoyed this film. I appreciated the look into how two cultures – both unfamiliar to me – reacted to one another. The transparent prejudice against the Chinese seemed a little heavy-handed, but I cannot say this was an unrealistic portrayal of the Danish attitude toward Chinese immigrants. For all I know, that kind of outright bigotry exists, and this movie served a rather vivid cultural statement on the part of the filmmakers. Upon its conclusion, the term "Kinamand" ("Chinaman") seems more a term of affection than derision.

And then there was the laughter. Almost every scene was peppered with wry, innocent humor that often transcended language. Thank goodness! I was beginning to despair for the Danish as a people…

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a nice review you provided. I enjoyed this movie very much although I was hoping for a different ending. For the girl to die in the end was the easiest ending seems to me, otherwise, the film maker would have trouble solving the ex-wife and the lump sum payoff as well. Sadly, that doomed a well made movie into obscure. Yang


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