"Chinaman": East Meets West By Ronald Bergan

in 40th Karlovy Vary Film Festival

by Ronald Bergan

As can be seen from the reports of two of my jury colleagues, a dominant theme of this year’s Karlovy Vary festival, and at others around the world, is that of migrants, people from other countries trying to survive in an alien culture. Generally, this leads to rather heavy didactism or well-meaning sentimental films far more concerned with the message than the medium.

The Danish film, Chinaman (Kinamand), the second feature directed by 46-year-old Henrik Ruben Genz, somehow avoids most of the obvious traps of such a subject. Although it deals with the attempts of a Chinese woman to join her family in Copenhagen by arranging a marriage of convenience with a Dane, in order to hoodwink the strict immigration authorities, the film is more concerned with personal relationships.

The main focus of the plot is on Keld (Bjarne Henriksen), a taciturn middle-aged plumber, whose 25-year marriage has broken down and who is alienated from his son. He finds some comfort at a Chinese restaurant where he eats every single night, working his way through the menu numerically. In one of the several contrivances of the screenplay, a water pipe bursts in the kitchen of the restaurant and he is conveniently on hand to repair it. He subsequently becomes friendly with the owner who later offers Keld money if he will marry his younger sister to allow her to remain in Denmark.

There follows a number of amusing sequences that play on the culture clash between the stoical solitary Dane and the warmer extended Chinese family. There is also a contrast between the two different father-son relationships. It is here that the film is at its best visually, with the rich colours of the Orient placed beside the duller colours of Denmark. Particularly effective is a long shot of Keld’s apartment, with a wall creating a split-screen effect between the bride in her colourful bedroom and the groom’s stark room.

When tragedy strikes, the film takes a darker tone and gradually, and rather predictably, moves towards an upbeat ending. On the whole, Chinaman is in the line of likable Danish movies such as Italian For Beginners, which could possibly be easily remade by Hollywood without too many changes. When I suggested to Bjarne Henriksen, the excellent leading actor, who is in almost every scene, that his role could be taken by Jack Nicholson in an American remake, he seemed to be flattered. However, this was a criticism on my part that the film, no matter how enjoyable, poignant and well-crafted, it took few risks. Unlike the superb but cryptic Iranian film in competition, Portrait of a Lady Faraway, by Ali Mosaffa, which, unfortunately, because of the need for some consensus, failed to win the FIPRESCI prize.