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Savant Short Review:

The Kingdom
part one

The Kingdom
Forel (Taiwan)
1994 / Color / 1:37 / 278/279m. / Riget
Starring Ernst-Hugo Jaregaard, Kirsten Rolffes, Holger Juul Hansen, Soren Pilmark, Ghita Norby, Jens Okking, Otto Brandenburg, Annevig Schelde Ebbe, Baard Owe, Birgitte Raaberg, Peter Mygind, Vita Jensen, Morten Rotne Leffers, Solbjorg Hojfeldt, Udo Kier
Cinematography Eric Kress
Production Designer Jette Lehmann
Film Editors Molly Marlene Stensgaard, Jacob Thuesen
Original Music Joachim Holbek
Writing credits Tomas Gíslason, Niels Vorsel and Lars von Trier
Produced by Sven Abrahamsen, Philippe Bober, Peter Aalbek Jensen, Ole Reim, Ib Tardini
Directed by Morten Arnfred, Lars von Trier

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

People who ought to know have been telling me for five years to see The Kingdom. This Taiwanese disc has all four hours of the first 1994 Danish miniseries, and it's very good. Savant hasn't much use for ghost stories (I stopped going to anything involving people detecting murders or suchsame using ESP years ago) but The Kingdom is a major exception. Forget Paddy Chayefsky's The Hospital, which also contrasted modern science with primitive belief systems. With at least a dozen fascinating, funny characters intersecting in the craziest ways imaginable, and used to draw you into a wonderfully gothic ghost tale, this was another, 'how will I ever sit through this disc', that we watched almost in one sitting. And we can't wait to see part two.

Synopsis: (mild quasi-spoilers)

The Kingdom is a massive hospital in Copenhagen that a spooky preamble informs us was built on marsh used centuries ago by people whose spirituality is rejected by the modern scientists and doctors. And they're a bizarre collection: Swedish head doctor Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Jaregaard, looking something like our Robert Emhardt) is an infantile Daneophobe with malpractice problems and an enormous ego. Affectionate doctor Rigmor (Ghita Norby) loves Helmer despite despite his empty promises to take her to Haiti. Head administrator Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), an adorable fuddy-duddy with a kind word for all, is trying to lessen tensions among the staff with a feel-good meetings he calls 'Operation Morning Air.' Moesgaard's incorrigible joker son Mogge (Peter Mygind) volunteers for sleep experiments to get near older, sexy nurse Camilla (Solborg Hojfeldt). Mogge, Helmer, and half of the rest of the hospital are being 'benignly blackmailed' by sharp operator Doctor Krogshoj (Soren Pilmark, confusingly ID'd as 'Hook' part of the time), who uses purloined goods and extorted influence to make the hospital run better. He's in love with another Doctor, Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), who mysteriously avoids him. And dedicated Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe, from Gertrud 40 years earlier) so desperately needs a sample of a rare tumor for his research, that he's willing to undergo an ultimate personal sacrifice to obtain one.

Also at The Kingdom is a wonderful hypochondriac/ghost hunter, the elderly Sigrid Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes). She hears voices in the elevator that tie in with other eerie phenomena, such as a phantom ambulance that pulls up to the hospital on lonely nights, or a ghost dog with blazing Baskerville eyes. Beginning as a dotty nuisance, she eventually becomes the most important person in the building...

Savant first has to admit that his experience with Danish movies a few years ago was limited to the woebegotten Reptilicus. The Carl Dreyer movies certainly showed me just how superior Danish cinema could be, but only now do I believe that there's a sense of humor North of Holland. The Kingdom is, along with spooky and dramatic, also fall-down hilarious. Lars Von Trier made the impressive but brutal Breaking the Waves, but it was dead serious. And although admired elsewhere, his earlier Element of Crime was for Savant a belabored exercise in elaborate nothingness.

The Kingdom shares an extreme visual style with other von Trier movies. A sickly yellow permeates most scenes, and most of the film is shot with a hand-held camera and edited in a series of quirky upcuts and continuity-fragmenting angle changes. We concentrate on the faces before us so as to not lose our bearings, with the happy result that we focus on subtle gestures and expressions thinking we've found them, rather than having been cleverly directed to them. Special effects are elegant but simple, mostly double-exposures. There's no overuse of bizarre visuals, actually ... so when something odd happens we're in a better position to pick up on it. At one point, a typically endless Kingdom corridor suddenly tilts, becoming practically a dead ringer for a view down an elevator shaft we've seen several times before. It's as if a simple camera adjustment had transformed one location into another.

Perhaps inspired by the bizarro American series Twin Peaks, The Kingdom has a style of its own and actually tops David Lynch in the drama department by making the doctors and ghost hunters of this hospital more accessibly human. The exaggerations of character aren't that impossible; I heard about hijinks with corpses in the morgue at UCLA, and I never got near the medical school. The various subplots crisscross humorously and there are surprises for everyone. The pompous are deflated and the complacent are disturbed. The incredibly insulting Helmer has no trouble calling anyone present an idiot, patients and doctors alike, but himself turns into a ninny over the slightest threat to his egocentric world, and even takes up the idea of Voodo at one point. The grudgingly tolerated Mrs. Drusse with her seances and spiritualist notions wanders the halls at will, accompanied by her loving son Bulder (Jens Okking), a hospital porter. Compared to all the shenanigans afoot, her dogged pursuit of the truth behind the ghosts actually makes sense to us: A young girl (Annevig Schelde Ebbe) was apparently poisoned at The Kingdom 70 years before. Totally separate from the proceedings are a Lynch-like pair of (Downs-syndrome?) dishwashers to whom we return at regular invervals, who comment on the proceedings in elliptical and poetic terms, predicting events and linking the spooky upheavals at the hospital above to the spirits buried below. At one point the earth erupts like an earthquake, when underground water seems to be undermining the building, a la Quatermass and the Pit. Using mentally-impaired people as clairvoyant sages is the closest anything in The Kingdom comes to a cliché.

I won't go into the subplots, which range from the randy to the macabre, and often jump right over the edge of common good taste. But the sex and gore always have a funny and human core. The Kingdom is a delightful experience that Savant can recommend to all.

The DVD of The Kingdom is the first apparently Hong Kong originated disc Savant has reviewed. This first half of the show is distributed by a company called Forel, and seems well set up for English Language use. The English subtitles are full of sometimes hilarious errors that are a combination of Anglicized goofs and just plain illiteracy. They were probably caused by a rushed typist who never looked back. Words are misspelled, and terms fractured ('sheself') and obscure to Yanks ('knackered') crop up all over the place. The funniest is the use of the word, 'toured', in place of a vulgar soundalike. But we had no trouble following anything, even though a couple of character names were confused now and then.

As with a Jackie Chan HK I once watched, The Kingdom isn't the best looking disc to roll off the assembly line. With almost five hours of content, the bit rate is sometimes barely adequate. On a small television it will be less noticeable, but there is a light sprinkling of insufficient compression throughout, which won't make a hoot of difference to the enjoyment of the story. The color scheme would seem to be so purposely corrupted that there's no way to discern if the transfer is accurate anyway. A big part of one episode has a green fringe around white highlights that almost looks like Technicolor misalignment; perhaps it's some kind of flaw in converting the film from PAL to NTSC, or something - (?). I'm usually sensitive to such things but the story was so captivating, it meant nothing. Looks good, played great.

A Savant review of The Kingdom 2 should be up in a week or so.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Kingdom, part One rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Clean, ugly, and appropriate
Sound: Good
Supplements: none that I could find in English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 25, 2001

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