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Movie Reviews: Kinamand (Chinaman)

The plumber Keld has been sweating joints and replacing U-traps for decades, approaching his job in the same unthinking, plodding manner as his 25-year marriage. When his wife Rie (Charlotte Fich) can’t even draw his attention to a cruise brochure, she finally lets it all fall through: She’s moving in with her sister and applying for a divorce. His response to is to sell everything in the apartment, sleep on the floor and brood, and eat out every night at a local Chinese restaurant. The sum total of his knowledge of Chinese food is so meager that he figures the best thing to do is simply start with the first dish on the menu and work his way down. (What happens when he gets to the bottom? he’s asked. Probably start at the top again, what else?)

One night while he’s eating, the pipes burst in the restaurant kitchen, and his workman’s instincts kick in: he runs back there, shuts off the water, surveys the damage, and shakes his head in dismay. “My uncle did the plumbing,” Feng, the owner haplessly admits. “From what I can see,” Keld (Bjarne Henriksen, also of Festen) replies, “your uncle’s no plumber.” “No, he’s just Chinese.” Soon the two of them have set up a black-market deal of sorts—meals for badly-needed plumbing repairs.

Lonely and despondent, Keld, freshly separated from his wife, takes refuge
in a local Chinese restaurant that turns out to be in need of his skills.

It isn’t long before Feng is telling Keld about his sister, Ling (Vivian Wu), who has no visa to stay in Denmark. Marry her, he says to Keld, so she can stay in the country, and you’ll earn a decent chunk of money—at least until she has her visa, at which point the two of you can do whatever you want. That much money would be a real godsend for Keld, whose business has collapsed and who’s facing a one-time alimony payment. He says sure, why not, and next thing we know he’s shacking up with language tapes so he can figure out how to say hello to the woman.

This isn’t exactly a new plot—I remember the Gerard Depardieu comedy Green Card, which had roughly the same storyline—but Kinamand is an entirely different kind of story, one more about loneliness and need and belonging, not just romantic serendipity. Keld is emotionally starved:—his whole life has consisted of his marriage, his job, and living in the shadow of his past glories as a rising chess champion. His son doesn’t seem particularly interested in reinforcing a connection with him, either: his father’s just another burden to him, one sooner dispensed with the better. He forges a signature on the divorce paperwork to attest that Keld was unfaithful, as a way to move things along all the more quickly.

Keld ends up serving them in another way: he marries the owner's sister, the better
for her to obtain a visa. He doesn't expect to actually connect with her, though.

The arrangement he comes to with Ling’s family seems equally troubling. There’s a scene when Feng cheerfully reads Keld a series of fake love letters (presumably assembled to appease anyone who might think the whole thing was contrived), and then exhorts the other man to create a few of his own. Keld can’t do it—not just because he knows the immigration authorities are not fools, but because he’s inwardly ashamed that such a big production is being made over him. The more they celebrate and cheer him on, the less worthy he feels, and there is a moment where he sits in the back seat of a limo, unmoving, with his new wife while tears streak down her face. And there is more to her, more than her family will admit, and which Keld has to discover for himself, painfully.

Kinamand works because the comedy comes naturally out of the characters, not the situation alone. The owner’s son loves being able to gas off to Keld about how much he hates working there and living with the rest of the family (including a generation of grandparents). And then there is Ling herself—not a wholly young woman anymore, depressed by not being able to even speak the language, dismayed by what she’s putting herself through to be with the rest of her family instead of going back to China. She doesn’t think anything of Keld at all, at first—like Keld’s own son, he’s just something to be endured for a bit. Then she starts to take an interest in this glum man, with his barren apartment and cluttered shop and his complete inability to use chopsticks properly.

What makes the movie an unexpected delight is not its plot, which has been explored
in other ways before, but its sharply-observed and wholly compelling characters.

Few of the best movies are simply a record of people talking at each other, and Kinamand isn’t just a bunch of head shots. The director, Henrik Ruben Gentz (a veteran of Danish TV), fills the screen with strong, clashing colors—the somber blues and greens of Keld’s apartment contrast with the spirited reds and golds of Ling’s dresses. The film itself is beautiful, to be sure, but the characters in it make it all the more beautiful—and as with all the best movies, it’s a shame to see them go.

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This page contains a single entry by Serdar Yegulalp in the categories Movie Reviews, Movies, published on 2007/07/07 16:36.

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