Think of Danish filmmaking, and chances are the first thing that comes to mind is the faintly facetious Dogme manifesto, which calls on directors to follow a “vow of chastity” — no artificial light, no constructed sets, no asynchronous sound, etc. While the whole idea of a manifesto now looks like little more than a canny marketing strategy, its call for greater rigor and simplicity has certainly invigorated Danish cinema since the late ’90s.
Still, chastity can get boring, particularly for its practitioners. (Most of the manifesto‘s signatories have long since fled the seminary.) If Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration offers a benchmark definition of “cinematically chaste,” then Lasse Spang Olsen‘s In China They Eat Dogs is like getting laid five times in a weekend. Where Lars von Trier and Vinterberg look backward to German UFA productions, and to great Danes like Douglas Sirk and Carl Dreyer, Olsen looks overseas, particularly toward America, and takes much of his inspiration from the post-Tarantino boom of the mid-’90s. That comparison does the movie few favors, though China‘s distributors and various lazy critics have been pushing the faint Pulp Fiction similarities for all they’re worth. Sure, China is violent, occasionally sick and imbued with black humor, but it also has a serious theme — can good come from evil? — and the nerve to follow its wacky premise right to the gates of hell.
Our hero is Arvid (Dejan Cukic), a young man who lives what he considers a blameless, happy life. He loves his wife (she thinks he‘s utterly boring) and his brother Harald (a criminal and a restaurateur), but he’s the sort of person who lets life happen to him rather than actively shaping it to his own needs. At the bank one day, he accidentally foils a robbery (with his squash racket) and becomes a local hero overnight. After the thief, Franz, has been jailed, Arvid is approached by Astrid (Line Cruse), a woman claiming to be Franz‘s girlfriend, who tells him the robbery was intended to finance artificial insemination for the childless couple. Big-hearted Arvid is distraught to learn that his good deed has caused unhappiness and decides to make amends with a well-intentioned bad deed that he hopes will reset the balance of karma in his life. He calls upon Harald (Kim Bodnia) to help him commit a robbery whose takings will finance the medical procedure.
The heist that follows rapidly degenerates into slaughter as Harald starts flinging injured security guards out of the fast-moving armored car and shooting anything that moves. Arvid begins to realize that his brother is a trigger-happy nutter (“Don’t ever call me a psychopath!” is Harald‘s beady-eyed response.) Frustrated in their attempts to set the world back on its proper axis, Arvid and Harald concoct ever more idiotic and murderous schemes, all the while acting quite appallingly as they vainly attempt to do a little good.
It all makes for grim, blood-soaked and often extremely funny filmmaking. Olsen and his screenwriter, Anders Thomas Jensen, have a knack for taking stereotypes (blank-faced nobody hero, gothic psychopath, dimwit crook) and filling them out with telling character details and personal idiosyncrasies. And the actors are all wonderfully deadpan and blase in the face of the escalating mayhem. Cukic’s Arvid wears a look of permanently horrified surprise on his face, and the riveting Bodnia (future star alert!) is an actor who can look into the camera for minutes without blinking as his victims (and we the audience) stand there helpless and frozen, trousers slowly filling with solids. But despite all the violence and the chaos, Olsen and Jensen never lose sight of their central concern with the arbitrary nature of what we deem good or evil, adeptly summarized in Harald‘s amoral philosophy: “Nothing’s right, nothing‘s wrong — you have to decide for yourself. After all, in China they eat dogs.” Tarantino and his ilk are about as interested in “themes” and “morality” as they are in character development. The Danes may have taken Q.T.’s crime-comedy template as their model, but they also prove that it‘s sturdy enough to accommodate more than glib pop-culture references and endless coffee-shop rap sessions.