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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Two From Denmark: Fighter and Princess

Two movies I've been anticipating for a while are Anders Morgenthaler's animated revenge thriller Princess (2006) and Natasha Arthy's Bend it Like Beckham for the kung fu set, Fighter (2007).

Princess is an odd package on paper: August (Thure Lindhardt) is a priest whose porn star sister has recently and left her damage but smart 5-year-old Mia (Mira Hilli Moller Hallund) to care for. Shocked by the emotional harm done to his young niece, August embarks on a mission to erase any vestige of his late sister's porn career while working his way towards her lover/boss, Charlie.

Using traditional animation, CG, live action inserts, and grainy camcorder video the story follows August on his quest in the present while giving viewers hints about how the rift formed between the formerly close brother and sister. The camcorder views in particular (always from August's perspective) show his compulsion to document his sister, no matter how sketchy the situation.

August is a bit off - he hates pornography (with good reason, in this case) but he also seems deeply, profoundly broken in his own way, even before his sister's exploitation. In flashbacks - which are sometimes accompanied by a distracting CG trip through August's synapses - he's always the observer and never the actor. Morgenthaler and co-writer Mette Heeno's script has a tendency to keep August's camera rolling when it should not be (particularly in the tense, confrontational second scene with the landlord).

The present-day sequences show August attempting to connect with Mia, even trying to gain a measure of catharsis for her by allowing her to participate in the revenge against her exploiters and abusers. The script is a little unclear on how many people mishandled this unfortunate child - I think it was just one character, but August seems to believe Charlie was involved as well.

The movie's position, I think, is that Christina and Mia's exploiters should be destroyed absolutely and completely. The two that we see, Preben (Tommy Kenter) and Sonny (Soren Lenander) are essentially vile gangsters. Charlie remains elusive but we understand from the shrine he has built for Christina in the local cemetery that he's a grotesque.

The viewer gets a Death Wish vibe from the whole thing, with the very capable August taking down these unsympathetic scumbags, working his way up the food chain. Even the cops are somewhat on August's side, opining that Preben and Sonny are lucky they're getting any help at all. August's attacks against the pornographers (and later their gun-toting henchmen) are fairly stylized, with the camera following the trajectory of bullets and crowbars as they hit their mark.

The film ultimately becomes exploitation cinema, all things considered, with its blood red-tinted focus on the violence and the almost playful nature of August's vengeful outing. Consider the scene in the warehouse early in the film where he has Mia pouring the gasoline while her stuffed animal prances in the background (a common conceit is that Mia thinks her stuffed bunny, Multe, is alive).

Why was animation chosen as the primary method to tell this story? According to IMDB it's about 20% live action and 80% animation - that sounds about right. Obviously, there's the appeal of splitting the past from present via format but what did it serve making the present animated? I suppose as a practical consideration, animating the film allowed the filmmakers to execute some of their more visceral set-pieces (how else could they afford to show the destruction of a city block of porn shops?). Still, there's a sense of the fantastic to the events given the slightly stylized nature of the characters and Mia's inner world being manifest through the ever-present Multe that creates distance instead of drawing you in. The split between the "real" (August in the past) and just plain moviemaking distracts more than it attracts if that makes any sense.

What do we make of the character's fate at the end of the movie? Or the friendly porn starlet who aids Mia in the mansion? The very final scene would hint that August's quest was just and redemptive while the acts themselves and their physical repercussions would tend to read as an outsized reaction on his part. I think in crafting such a strange brew of film styles and focusing on the delivery method of the content, the creative team perhaps got a little muddled in the actual, you know, content of the content. Ultimately Princess comes off as a revenge pic of the sex and murder genre - think 1979's Hardcore with George C. Scott or the original Get Carter. Unfortunately it puts up so many layers between its lead and its message that the movie is difficult to get behind.

Fighter similarly has a problem with a somewhat inscrutable lead. A coming-of-age Kung Fu film should be an easy sell to me but the script and performances never really generate any sort of relatable or believable tension. Instead, we get a retread of of numerous teen girl empowerment films which aims for grit but hits melancholy.

It's about Aicha (Semra Turan) a high school student cool to her strict Muslim parents' aspirations for her to become a doctor. The tomboyish lead would rather be practicing martial arts and watching grainy interviews with the late great Bruce Lee, though. The tension is obvious well-worn - traditional immigrant culture (her family is Turkish) vs. modern opportunities for a girl in the west. Writer/director Natasha Arthy and co-writer Nicolaj Arcel's script just dresses it in martial arts drag.

I've mentioned before that Aicha is inscrutable: some of that is from a script that's vague on exactly what her character wants but the other part is Turan's performance which is incredibly internal. Aicha spends a lot of her time literally running between locations and keeping her eyes down and mouth shut when she gets there. Of course she opens up a bit when she joins a Kung Fu club run by the Hong Kong mainstay Xian Gao (Crouching Tiger, Fong Sai Yuk a.k.a. The Legend) but that liveliness is more the result of well-choreographed if choppily-edited fight scenes.

The movie only seems alive during the wire work-heavy action scenes (which culminate in a tournament that's more Fight Club than The Karate Kid) but for the remainder of its running time the story is on autopilot. The story can barely muster any surprises or variation on the type of film, instead coasting on the formula. If you guessed her father was an ogre, her mother was knowing and disappointed, and that she had an older sibling who was the family's pride and joy then you were right on all counts. Is there a Danish boy outside of her traditional community who has her eye? You bet, but in this case it's the slightly slimy Emil (Cyron Bjorn Melville) whose character is never really given anything beyond an overtly sexual interest in Aicha.

I can't fault the look of the film, however. The grime and grit of the lower class Denmark estates are convincingly visualized through lots of handheld camera work and a high level of grain in the image.

The trailer for Princess:

's trailer:


  1. John Byrne talks about your review of Angel VS Frankenstein at his website located here.


    Did you read the issue?

  2. Here you go, Matt: