Chinaman by Henrik Ruben Genz
Several years ago, Zhang Ziyi (who had become Hollywood’s new “it girl” thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) was in talks to star in a movie with — wait for it — Adam Sandler. Titled Good Cook, Likes Music, the film (which is apparently languishing in one of the lower circles of Development Hell) features Sandler as a lovable slacker (whoa, big surprise there) who sends away for a Chinese mail-order bride (Zhang). Presumably, sparks and cross-cultural misunderstandings would fly, both would learn some valuable life lessons, and true love would win out in the end.
Looked at it from that way, the plot of the 2005 Danish film Chinaman isn’t all that dissimilar. But it’s safe to say that’s where the similarities end.
To call Keld’s life boring and monotonous would be something of an understatement. Once a famous chess player, he now works as a plumber — though he’s not a very good one. The more Keld just trudges through life, the less his wife can stand it until she finally decides to leave him for someone else. Abandoned by his wife and plagued by irate clients, Keld’s only refuge is the nearby Chinese restaurant that he frequents. The owner of the shop, Feng, becomes the closest thing Keld has to a friend.
One day, Feng makes a surprising offer: he’ll pay Keld $4,000 to marry his sister Ling so that she can live in the country legally. Although he initially refuses Feng’s request, Keld eventually relents, as he needs the money to pay off his wife during divorce proceedings. Ling moves in with Keld and the wedding plans get underway.
But slowly, Keld finds himself falling for Ling, opening up to her in ways that he never did with his previous wife. Despite the obvious language and cultural barriers — Ling knows no Danish and Keld knows only a smattering of Chinese — a bond does begin forming between the two, even if it’s only for show until Ling gets her visa. Meanwhile, Keld’s wife becomes increasingly jealous and manipulative, threatening to inform the authorities about the nature of Keld’s new marriage even as she tries to wheedle her way back into Keld’s life.
There are two primary criticisms of Chinaman. One is that the filmmakers essentially stack the deck in favor of Keld and Ling. This is primarily the case with Keld’s wife, who is about as unsympathetic of a character as you can imagine — alternately frigid, manipulative, bitchy, and cajoling — and their son, who quickly sides with his mother. It’s difficult not to feel any sympathy for Keld, who is basically a sad sack of potatoes throughout the entire film.
The other is that the film moves at the sort of stark, economical, drier-than-dry pace that one typically expects from Scandinavian cinema. While this does keep both the melodrama and runtime down (less than 90 minutes), the brisk pace and often-taciturn characters also keeps the viewer at arm’s length from the characters and their plights and struggles, and the small character moments that can make this sort of drama so involving and engaging.
Therefore, it’s to Chinaman’s credit that it does pack an emotional punch when necessary, that it does draw the viewer in when it needs to. And much of that has to do with Bjarne Henriksen who portrays Keld as something of a buffoon, but a buffoon that does undergo a transformation, however glacially paced it might be. One scene, where he breaks down in frustration and loss, is quite affecting because Keld, for all of his obvious flaws and woodenness, does garner the viewer’s sympathies.
All that being said, it does ultimately feel like Chinaman, as winsome as it is, does pass up a few too many opportunities to be something a little better. For starters, the character of Ling (Vivian Wu) is essentially window dressing throughout the film. There are moments where her facade cracks, such as when she attempts to teach Keld how to use chopsticks, but she remains aloof and icy throughout much of the film — which makes it somewhat difficult to believe that she is also falling in love with Keld.
Additionally, it would’ve been fascinating to see more of the Chinese culture in Denmark — how it’s had to adapt, how it’s maintained its traditions, etc. But said culture remains largely in the backdrop, utilized only to enforce the crazy situation Keld now finds himself in. And finally, it looks as if the film is going to develop a subplot paralleling the relationship between Keld and his son, and the relationship between Feng and his son Zhang, who wants to leave the family business and start his own life. But aside from a few tertiary bits of dialog about sons’ duties to their fathers, that subplot goes nowhere.
Some might look at the basic premise of Chinaman and think it borderline offensive, or at the very least, there will be plenty of opportunity for crude racial situations. Thankfully, Chinaman steers clear of that almost entirely. Some racial stereotyping does take place, but it’s always presented in either a bad light or an absurd one, and as such, it’s truly difficult to find it problematic. No, the film’s biggest problem is that, for all of its good qualities, it’s just not as absorbing as the film’s themes and characters warrant.