THE KINGDOM 2

Directed by Lars von Trier and Morten Arnfred

Written by von Trier and Niels Vørsel

With Ernst Hugo Jaregård, Kristen Roffes, Ghita Nørby, Søren Pilmark, Holger Juul Hansen and Udo Kier

Distributed by October Films

***


Until I saw THE KINGDOM, I never took Lars von Trier particularly seriously. Although his talent was evident from THE ELEMENT OF CRIME and ZENTROPA, he seemed far more concerned with visual flash than emotion, storytelling or anything resembling content. His public behavior around the time ZENTROPA came out didn't exactly encourage one to take him seriously, either. The deliberately grainy photography, bleached, monochromatic colors and handheld camerawork of THE KINGDOM came as a shock. (It was, of course, intended to be seen on video, and its style is far more effective in that format.) It was a definitive break with the aesthetic of his earlier films, and its seemingly artless style was no accident. A greater shock came around the halfway mark, as I realized I was in the hands of a master of pacing and storytelling.

THE KINGDOM 2 doesn't waste much time picking up where its predecessor left off. Almost immediately, the elderly malingerer Sigrid Drusse (Kristen Roffes) gets hit by ambulance in the hospital's parking lot, for once giving her a genuine reason to stay in the hospital. Despite her efforts to drive away the ghost of Mary, a little girl who was murdered there in 1919, the hospital is still crawling with spirits. The cranky Swedish neurosurgeon Dr. Stig G. Helmer has just returned from a jaunt to Haiti, having picked up the poison that turns men into zombies, which he plays to use on his archrival Krogen (Søren Pilmark.) Dr. Bondo (Baard Owe), who elected to have a cancerous liver transplanted into his own body in order to grow the largest hepatosarcoma in existence, has been getting worse. There's a popular new sport in the hospital: sending an ambulance, driven by the masked "Falcon," out to race in the wrong direction on public streets. As shown in the final shot of THE KINGDOM, the villainous ghost Aage Krüger (Udo Kier) has succeeded in fathering a monstrous baby, known as Little Brother (the head of Udo Kier). There are a number of other subplots, but it would be impossible to tell too much without giving away spoilers. Besides, the film's hyperbolic narrative overload and cross-jump-cutting don't translate well to the written word.

Part of the pleasure of a TV series (or a series of sequels) is the pleasure of following the same set of characters for an extended period of time, and THE KINGDOM 2 doesn't disappoint in this regard. Helmer's irascible, misanthropic persona tends to dominate the film; this time, his "Danish scum" monologues are delivered from the P.O.V. of a piece of shit! However, the genuinely eerie tone of THE KINGDOM is replaced here by an emphasis on humor, especially the comic gross-out. The first film managed to balance humor and horror without ever becoming merely campy; this one doesn't succeed so well. Almost all of the humor does work, so I shouldn't complain, but the creepy atmosphere is missed.

Additionally, the first third of THE KINGDOM hung together wonderfully. Its pacing was carefully modulated, gradually building from the relatively slow first episode, which could almost pass for a "normal" TV show, to the frenzy of the fourth. Even if it looked like video, it felt like a film, and even if it was intended as the first third of a series, it made sense as an organic whole. Unfortunately, THE KINGDOM 2 doesn't. It's not likely to mean much to people who haven't seen THE KINGDOM, and it doesn't build to a conclusion as brilliant as the ending of the first third. To put it bluntly, it feels like the middle third of a TV series, and something is lost by seeing it in a stand-alone context.

Like Mrs. Drusse, von Trier is reportedly quite the hypochondriac, and THE KINGDOM is filled with an obsessive mixture of fascination and repulsion towards illness, death and medical iconography. It constantly riffs on the interweaving of scientific rationalism and mysticism, mocking both, while treating the hospital itself as an ailing, achy body, subject to cracks and gushes of fluid. Here, the mixture tips over into repulsion, along with a surprising amount of anger about the way medical institutions can abuse power. As enjoyably outrageous as Helmer's behavior is, we're never allowed to forget that he caused a little girl to become permanently brain-damaged, and there's also a subplot about a dying man, injured in one of the ambulance races. THE KINGDOM ended with a birth; if the conclusion of THE KINGDOM 2 isn't quite as satisfying, it may be because it ends with one death and the promise of many more.

It's difficult to dislike any film that features a musical number by a pair of retarded dishwashers, but I wish von Trier and Arnfred had tried a little harder with THE KINGDOM 2. There's plenty of worthwhile material in it, but it doesn't hang together particularly well. The ending is yet another cliffhanger, and although von Trier's new film, THE IDIOTS, will probably be out later this year, we'll probably have to wait until 1999 (at the earliest) for the resolution of his latest apocalypse.