Under the Tree (Undir trénu, Iceland-Poland-Denmark 2017)

Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) with the ‘rude gnomes’ during the initial, low level skirmishes

At first, I was under the misapprehension that Under the Tree was a follow-up to Rams (2015), the Icelandic film that became a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. I was wrong. Under the Tree is a different writing and directing team. Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson wrote and directed the film with Huldar Breiðfjörð as co-writer.

But Iceland is a country with a small population and a small but vibrant film industry and the same lead actor, Sigurður Sigurjónsson, appears in this film and in Rams, the production context is very similar and the genre of ‘black comedy’ is exactly the same. I was bowled over by Rams which I found quite moving as well as tragic and darkly comic. I feel a little more distanced from Under the Tree and that is probably because the story idea, though ostensibly the same (warring neighbours), is presented in a more familiar setting/context.

Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) whose tan is threatened by the tree’s shadow

Two couples, Konrad and Eybjorg and the older Baldvin and Inga, are neighbours in a pair of houses in an undefined location, presumably on the outskirts of Reykjavik. Though the houses seem quite ‘modern’, Baldvin and Inga have a large tree in the front garden that casts a shadow over their neighbour’s patio. Eybjorg is a younger woman determined to sunbathe and frustrated by the shadow. This is the basis of the conflict and what ensues is similar in many ways to the classic stop-motion animation Neighbours (Canada 1952)  by Norman McLaren. Neighbours was clearly a political allegory about escalation and military conflict. I think it’s more difficult to pinpoint the purpose of Under the Tree, apart from its generic ‘pleasures’.

The film also has a secondary plot in which Atli, Baldvin and Inga’s son, offends his wife and is thrown out of their apartment (in a communal apartment block). He has to return home and begin legal action to gain access to his daughter. There is a clear parallel here between the conflict over the tree and the battle over the child. It seems in some ways that the young couple (whose behaviour I at first thought was wild and unreasonable) go about resolving their conflict in a ‘modern’ way. The parents’ behaviour is almost primitive. I should also mention that Atli had a brother who died and Inga hasn’t properly recovered from this. There might be a suggestion of a kind of psychological thriller or even horror film in Inga’s actions. ‘Missing’ children seem to be a recurring feature of the (limited) number of Icelandic narratives I’ve read.

Baldvin (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) is the only one not singing in the choir – still shocked by the escalation of the conflict

I’ve probably learned most about aspects of Icelandic culture from the crime novels of Arnaldur Indriðason and the adaptation of one of his novels Mýrin (Jar City 2006). The missing/lost children/siblings is a feature of more than one of these novels, as is the importance of choral singing. In Under the Tree there are two sequences of the male voice choir which includes Baldvin in its ranks. The exquisite sound of this choir offers a stark contrast to the ugliness of the relationships in and between the two households – all three sets of couples are at odds with each other. The choir also symbolises just what can be achieved through ‘harmony’ in a very direct way.

Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) with a chainsaw. He wouldn’t, would he?

As well as the sound design which includes the choral singing, the cinematography in this film is also expressive. Polish cinematographer Monika Lenczewska manages to capture the peculiar light of an Icelandic summer with a subdued palette of colours. Somehow, her visual representation of the two houses and the streets of Reykjavik seems to conjure up an environment as bleak, in different ways, as the snowstorms of Rams. A picnic on the grass by the IKEA car park sums it up really. Under the Tree is a skilled production all round and I recommend it. But do be aware it is a very dark ‘comedy’.

Rams (Hrútar, Iceland-Denmark-Norway-Poland 2015)

rams_poster

These are my (slightly edited) notes distributed for a screening of the film in 2016.

Rams was a surprise arthouse hit in the UK in 2016. It was promoted as a dark comedy about a pair of brothers who have fallen out though they live close by each other on two separate farms. What brings them back into contact is an outbreak of disease among the local sheep and their farmer’s reluctance to follow government guidelines on disease control. For some audiences the film is dark enough to be a tragedy, but either way it seems to have captured the imagination of UK audiences.

Iceland has one of the highest per capita cinema attendance rates in the world. Whatever the reasons for this (long, cold nights with little to do?), it does mean a vibrant local film culture and a recent history of notable films that have won prizes at international festivals. For example, Volcano (Iceland-Denmark 2011) won the New European Cinema Prize at Bradford International Film Festival in 2012. Although a winner around the world, no-one was prepared to go on and release the film in the UK. The lead in Volcano was played by Theodór Júlíusson, now one of the two brothers in Rams. We should be grateful that Soda Pictures gambled and put Rams into distribution. Perhaps it was the leavening effect of humour which allowed Rams into distribution? The other recent Icelandic film to get a UK release, Of Horses and Men (2013) is also a ‘rural comedy’.

Like most Icelandic film productions (and TV serials like Trapped, on BBC4 early in 2016), Rams is a co-production involving Danish as well as Icelandic public funds. The budget for the film was around €1.5 million (about the same as the average for low budget UK films). Around 10-12 films are made in Iceland each year. The links to Denmark are ‘post-colonial’ in Iceland. They are necessary for such a small country, though after 1945 Iceland began to turn more to the US and the UK (the relationship with the UK has sometimes been similarly tense – note the aside about disease imported with British livestock in the film). Polish involvement in Rams perhaps reflects the fact that Poles are the biggest migrant group in the country. Iceland’s population is only 330,000 – less than Bradford and less than half the population of Leeds. Nearly two-thirds of the population live in the ‘capital region’ of ‘Greater Reykjavik’. Emotional dramas like Rams can be quite intimate. Population density outside the capital region is very low and people know their neighbours well. Family disputes stand out.

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) checks the fence between the two properties – the houses are shown in the background

Director’s statement

Rams was written and directed by Grímur Hákonarson, a young man still in his 30s who has made an affecting film about two brothers in their sixties. Hákonarson began his career working on documentaries and he also has experience of working with sheep. An interview with him is available on the BFI Player series (free to watch): https://player.bfi.org.uk/film/watch-rams-qa-with-director-grimur-hakonarson-2016/

Hákonarson trained in Prague and in the interview he explains that his instinct is to show rather than ‘tell’ as a Hollywood film might do. This means that as an editor, he always tries to cut the dialogue and that as a documentarist he is spontaneous – sometimes shooting scenes not in the script because they might offer something in the edit. For example, a scene in which one of the brothers, Gummi, shovels snow from outside his door was not in the script but now has meaning in the final edit.

Many of the incidents in the film that seem absurd or slightly surreal are in fact based on real incidents, including the trip to hospital and sheep in the basement. The central story is inspired by a true story the filmmaker learned from his father and some of the extras who appear in the film are local farmers. The film does confirm the old adage that the more ‘real’ a filmmaker wishes a film to appear, the more artifice is required. In this case that means a long period of preparation, including a search for amenable sheep (most sheep would simply run away from the filmmakers and Iceland has nearly 500,000 sheep), finding the two houses close together etc. Though the region of Iceland depicted in the film (in the North West) does have heavy snowfall in winter, it was still necessary to spend money on artificial snow (and CGI snow) for some scenes. Two sheep died ‘naturally’ during the filming and through use of CGI the two dead sheep could be used to show a flock being culled.

Tradition and family

Iceland is a ‘young country’ in terms of population profile with a median age of 35 and a high birth rate by European standards. But it is also a culture in which traditions are important as well as close family ties. The director has stated that he sees the ending of the film as symbolic.

References

Statistics on Iceland from: https://issuu.com/hagstofa/docs/icelandinfigures2015

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (Hong Kong 2011)

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

Louis Koo, Gao Yuanyuan and Daniel Wu on the original HK poster.

MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.

There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.

At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey.

Qihong and Zixin skating (he has lived in Canada and plays ice hockey).

The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.

Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.

Trailer with English Subs:

Mermaid (HK-China 2016)

mermaidposter

This record-breaking Stephen Chow comedy was released in the UK only 10 days after its Chinese release. Sony released the film taking advantage (presumably) of the new strategy devised by Asia Releasing which gets new Chinese films into cinemas in cities with a sizeable Chinese diaspora population. Mermaid opened on 19 screens in the UK.

This release strategy is similar to that of the Bollywood distributors in the UK and Mermaid shares something with mainstream Hindi popular cinema in offering romance (with songs) and broad comedy alongside special effects and action. The massive success of the film is, however, due, I think, to jokes in the Mandarin dialogue (which I couldn’t catch) and a serious theme. This latter gave the film a Japanese feel for me.

Mermaid‘s simple plot sees an extremely wealthy businessman Xuan Liu (Deng Chao) buying an area of coastal National Park for re-development and then entering into partnership with the dangerous Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), a beautiful woman who expects Xuan’s attention but is interested mainly in money. Xuan’s plan is to use sonar devices to drive away all marine life away from ‘Green Gulf’ and then re-develop the area (or sell it for re-development at an inflated price). At a party to celebrate the new partnership, Xuan is approached by a young woman, Shan (Lin Yun) who everybody assumes is a dancer or a ‘goodtime girl’. Xuan is interested, even if only to spite Ruolan. What he doesn’t know is that Shan is a mermaid from the last surviving group of ‘merpeople’ in Green Gulf. She is the ‘honey’ in a trap designed to capture and kill Xuan and prevent the redevelopment. The rest of the plot flows from this premise. Will Xuan fall for Shan? Will she be party to his murder? Will Ruolan allow all this to happen? Will the mer community be wiped out etc.? You can guess the answers to these questions.

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her 'uncle'

Lin Yun and Show Luo as Shan and her ‘uncle’

I enjoyed the film and the central performances. Stephen Chow has appeared himself in previous blockbusters such as Kung Fu Hustle (HK 2004) but now he is limited to producing, writing and directing. Deng Chao and Lin Yun make a good couple and Zhang Yuqi is an excellent villainess. I thought that Show Luo, the well-known Taiwanese dancer, had a very interesting role as a merman who is half octopus/half man. Chow mined this character for some good comic material.

The Japanese connection comes with both the ecological theme shared with Miyazaki’s Ponyo (Japan 2008) and the various documentaries about pollution in Japanese waters including The Cove (US 2009). I don’t know enough about critiques of pollution and narratives of ecological destruction in Chinese media to judge how unusual this is. I’m also intrigued by the strength of the anti-business message and wonder how this is being received in China. Unlike Hollywood blockbusters, this Chinese blockbusters seems to be ‘about’ something. This places it alongside other Japanese genre pictures such as the Godzilla films.

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Deng Chao as Xuan Liu

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Ruolan played by Zhang Yuqi

Xuan Liu is quite a bit older than Shan and some reviewers feel this is an issue for the romance narrative. I should also point out that many reviewers criticise the CGI in the film. I never notice these things – they seemed to work fine. But perhaps evaluating effects is just a skill I don’t have? It’s far more important to have a good story and interesting characters. The role of Ruolan is played ‘straight’ by Zhang Yuqi. This is the better option, I think, than playing the villain as a comically evil character. Overall Stephen Chow makes the right decisions throughout the production.

Lost in Hong Kong (China 2015)

Ba as Cai Lala (left) and Xu Zhen as Xu (right)

Bao Bei’er as Cai Lala (left) and Xu Zhen as Xu Lai (right)

Here’s the latest indicator of the development of Chinese film in a global context. American-based Asia Releasing, which currently distributes Chinese films in North America and Australasia, has moved into UK distribution with a limited ‘day and date’ release of the third in the ‘Lost‘ franchise of Chinese blockbusters, Lost in Hong Kong. The film opened in major city centre Odeons in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield and London in its first week. In the second week it expanded to include screens in Newcastle, Edinburgh and Oxford. Lost in Hong Kong grossed over $100 million on its first weekend in China and became the Chinese film with the biggest opening day box office. The high profile of the film meant it wasn’t too much of a gamble in attracting Chinese students in the UK (the largest Chinese student group in Europe). The film is also likely to appeal to the Cantonese HK diaspora because, as the title implies, it pays hommage to both Hong Kong the city and the popular Hong Kong films of the 1990s. In its first weekend in the UK Lost in Hong Kong made No 14 in the chart with a screen average of £9,477 – the highest for any title except Secret Cinema’s The Empire Strikes Back. Showings of major Hong Kong films during the Chinese New Year period have been relatively common in London and Manchester for several years, but otherwise Chinese film fans have had to wait for UK distributors to release Chinese art films or for occasional limited cinema releases of popular genre films which usually find their audiences via DVD. In that context the Asia Releasing strategy is innovatory and matches the current UK practice with blockbusters from the Hindi and Tamil film industries.

The Lost franchise began with the relatively low key Lost on Journey (China 2010) starring Xu Zheng. Lost in Thailand (China 2012) caught the imagination of the rapidly-growing mainstream Chinese audience and became one of the biggest box office winners of the last few years. Xu directed the second film himself and the cast included other internationally-known stars such as Fan Bingbing (as herself). I haven’t seen either of these two previous films but I’ve read comments on them that suggest a central plot idea that sends Xu on a journey which will see him entangled with a character who is bound to get him into trouble and the result is a ‘comedy-adventure’ narrative with broad humour and numerous stunts. One reviewer referred to the ‘Road’ films starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope from the 1940s to 1960s (the last of which was The Road to Hong Kong in 1962). This seems a good reference and in contemporary cinema, Lost in Thailand has been seen as riffing on the Hollywood Hangover films.

I had two disadvantages watching Lost in Hong Kong. I haven’t visited Hong Kong and I haven’t seen enough Hong Kong films to spot all the allusions and to get all the jokes. Having said that, several references were signalled so clearly that even I couldn’t miss them. At one point a DVD of Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story falls to the ground. There are also explicit references to Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express and 2046. At other times, though, it’s necessary to recognise actors, directors or locations to appreciate the joke. I’m sure the mainly young Chinese audience behind me laughed more often than I did.

In the nostalgic flashback, Cai (Zhao Wei) tends to Xu

In the nostalgic flashback, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei) tends to Xu Lai

These films are part of a developing industrial franchise but they don’t utilise the same characters. I think that only Xu Zheng himself is a constant alongside the narrative formula. Lost in Hong Kong begins with a nostalgic flashback to the college days of the three central characters – something of a current trend in films catering to the 1990s generation of students? Xu Lai (Xu Zheng) is an artist/designer who falls in love with artist Yang Yi (Du Juan) but is being pursued by business major Cai Bo (Zhao Wei). When Yang Yi leaves to go to Hong Kong, Cai Bo is successful in her pursuit and the couple are married with Xu becoming a designer of brassieres for Cai Bo’s family lingerie business. Twenty years later the family takes a vacation in Hong Kong. The whole family is concerned that Cai Bo has not yet produced a child but Xu is hoping to sneak off to the opening of Yang Yi’s major new exhibition. His only problem is that his brother-in-law, the manic man-child Cai Lala (Bao Bei’er) insists on following him everywhere with his video camera, claiming he is making a personal documentary. When Cai Lala inadvertently films a crime, he sets up the possibility of a chase. This will then take up most of the narrative.

I’m not usually a fan of action blockbusters and I went to the screening out of purely academic interest but I confess that there were some long sequences that I enjoyed partly because of Xu’s performance and partly because of the sheer skill and creativity of the action stunts. Some of the very broad ‘family humour’ was familiar from the Alls Well, Ends Well HK comedies and it was interesting to try to think about which famous HK action films might be the inspiration for various stunts. From my limited viewing of mainstream Chinese films I was surprised that Zhao Wei (‘Vicky’ Zhao) was so under-used – I think of her as a major star who is here presented in a very unflattering way. Several scenes – including the climactic action scene – are played out high up on skyscrapers. So beware if you suffer from vertigo. I wondered whether this was again a specific Hong Kong film culture reference. As well as the rooftop scene from Infernal Affairs, suicides from tall buildings feature in several films (and in real life in the case of Leslie Cheung).

Overall I thought Lost in Hong Kong, as a ‘global film’, stands up well in comparison with Hollywood as well as Hindi and Tamil blockbusters. Watching it I was reminded of some recent ‘Hindie’/New Bollywood films like Delhi Belly or 3 Idiots. The latter did become a global film that performed well in Hong Kong cinemas. I wonder if Chinese producers will one day think of making Lost in Mumbai?

Teaser Trailer

An outline history of developments in Chinese Cinemas (PRC, Hong Kong and Taiwan) is given in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.

The Midnight After (Hong Kong 2014)

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

The survivors in home-made protection gear prepared to take on whatever comes next in THE MIDNIGHT AFTER

Fruit Chan is the Hong Kong director best known in the UK for his independent film classic Made in Hong Kong (HK 1997) and his horror features and portmanteau film episodes such as Dumplings (HK 2004). His latest venture proved a suitably bonkers but enjoyable finale to the Asia Triennial 14 Festival screenings programme at Cornerhouse, Manchester. Chosen by festival programmers Sarah Perks and Andy Willis, both HK cinema fans, it proved to be the ‘popular cinema with a message’ that doesn’t usually get onto UK cinema screens.

The Midnight After is an adaptation (loosely, I imagine) of an internet novel that went viral and was eventually published in print form. At first glance it looks like a conventional horror genre flic. A mini-bus driver is called from his mahjong game as a substitute driver for a late-night service starting in Kowloon and heading out to Tai Po in the New Territories. The passengers are a motley crew of students, young couples and older eccentrics. Part way through the Lion tunnel something happens and the bus arrives in a deserted and apparently post-apocalyptic Tai Po. Panic gradually sets in, some members of the group break away and die in mysterious circumstances. We’ve seen it all before but Chan’s track record suggests that the usual conventions won’t deliver the usual outcomes or the usual pleasures.

I’m not going to pretend that I knew what was going on for much of the film and I certainly didn’t ‘get’ the ending – just like everyone else. I can also understand the complaints that the film is too long (123 mins is pushing it for this kind of production) but overall I enjoyed the experience.

Chan’s 1997 film was one of the last of the films exploring life for youths in Hong Kong during the final months of control from London before the ‘handover’ to China. It doesn’t take too much imagination to work out that the passengers on the minibus (and the driver) are representative of certain groups in Hong Kong society and that trying to organise themselves into a group in order to survive – and to try to understand what is happening – is a metaphor for ordinary HK residents trying to deal with the Chines authorities. On the other hand, they also behave a bit like the marooned schoolboys in Lord of the Flies and the folk getting together to fight zombies in Romero’s Living Dead films. Chan gives us some good laughs between the blood and gore and other effects. A highlight is a decoded message referring to David Bowie’s hit ‘Space Oddity’. Another reference is to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The ending of the film seems like it is deliberately set up for a sequel. (In fact the whole narrative feels like an extended episode or episodes of Dr Who.) The film was successful in its home market where the actors, the dialects and cultural references – as well as the political implications – make most sense. I wonder if it might also do well in other parts of East Asia. At times it reminded me of Korean and Japanese films. One website informs us that Chan released a second version of the film cut to be screened to under-18s and an obvious ploy to expand the audience. The Midnight After made HK$10 million after just 6 days on release and Chan has said that he will definitely make a sequel if the box office passes HK$30 million. To put this in perspective, the target is the equivalent of just under US$4 million. Still, this is a significant amount for a domestic HK film these days. I hope the director gets his wish. I’m just glad to have seen an enjoyable comedy-horror in ‘Scope.

Hong Kong popular cinema is discussed in both Chapter 2 and Chapter 11 in The Global Film Book. The idea of developing an internet novel into a film is explored in Chapter 2 in terms of the smash hit South Korean romantic comedy My Sassy Girl (2001).

Here’s a trailer (an English-subtitled Region 3 DVD is available from YesAsia):

In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, Norway-Sweden-Den-Ger 2014)

as Lars

Stellan Skarsgård as Lars

Kraftidioten got very good reviews at the Berlin Festival in January but has been released by Metrodome on just 25 screens in the UK. That’s a shame because it is an enjoyable black comedy with a star cast offering great entertainment value. The film’s Norwegian title refers to the ‘power idiots’ who operate in part of the Norwegian north country (represented generically rather than precisely in a snow-covered mountain landscape with occasional trips to the city which looms out of the snow like Oz). The ‘idiots’ are two groups of gangsters controlling the local drugs trade. Unfortunately, one group has incurred the wrath of an upstanding ‘citizen of the year’ played by Stellan Skarsgård as the driver of giant snow-clearing trucks. Provoked beyond his tether by the murder of his son this character proceeds to ‘eliminate’ gang members one by one until he finds the real culprit – thus the English title. Each ‘disappearance’ is marked by a simple death notice.

The chief idiot is a Norwegian gang leader from a local crime family. He’s a pony-tailed vegan living in a show house stuffed with designer monstrosity furniture who compounds the initial idiocy by wrongfully attacking the Serbian gangsters who control the other half of the market. The film is marketed as a ‘thriller’ and a ‘comedy’. It is extremely violent but there is plenty of dry and dark Nordic humour, which I think should appeal in the UK. I’ve read at least one comment from elsewhere which thought the film was a serious drama.

Alongside the Swedish star Skarsgård the starry cast includes Bruno Ganz (Swiss) as the Serbian gangster leader and Birgitte Hjort Sørensen (Katrine from Borgen) as a divorced wife (otherwise this is a very male film). The international casting reflects the usual co-production arrangements of the three Scandinavian countries with Germany. Inevitably, comparisons have been made to both Tarantino and the Coen Bros films, especially Fargo. There is something in these comparisons and they may well have influenced Danish scriptwriter Kim Fupz Aakeson and Norwegian director Hans Petter Moland – two highly-experienced creatives. However, much of the humour strikes me as Norwegian/Swedish, drawing on representations of a welfare society and the familiar discourse of ‘new immigrants’ in Scandinavia. Skarsgård’s character’s Swedish identity is highlighted when he is praised for being the best kind of Swedish immigrant. In contrast, the Norwegian gangster insists that the Serbians are actually Albanians. The nearest comparison I could make is with Morten Tyldum’s adaptation of Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters (Norway 2011). That film was a big success in the UK and if you enjoyed it, you should enjoy the slightly drier and more comedic scenes here. I should add though that this is slightly less of a thriller and its relatively slow pace stretches to 116 minutes.

The UK Trailer (which does include some of the best moments, so don’t watch if you already know you want to watch the film):