St. Bernard Syndicate, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/03/18 08:05:02

"Questionable business plan, interesting movie."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The director of "The St. Bernard Syndicate" has spent much of his career doing "satirical documentaries", and one wonders if he may have had that in mind for this film as well. The subject matter is certainly ripe for such an approach, but in a bit of irony, it turns out that taking a scripted approach allows him and his collaborators to hit upon something that feels a little bit more real.

In the film, Frederik (Frederik Cilius) has what sounds like a solid business idea - not just breeding selling St. Bernard dogs in China, where the middle class is exploding and the breed is a potential novelty - but creating a subscription revenue stream by handling food, veterinary appointments, and the like. His family has been breeding the dogs for generations, but his father (Flemming Sørensen) refuses to invest, saying he has no head for business. The only person from his old, "elite" private school interested is Rasmus (Rasmus Bruun), but he isn't nearly so wealthy as Frederik thinks and has just had a rather disturbing medical diagnosis. Maybe that's why he accompanies Frederik and his big, friendly dog Dollar to Chungqing, looking for adventure and accomplishment, nursing a crush on translator Beyond (Li Boyang) and negotiating with local investor Mr. Ling (Lee Liheng).

It would be easy, perhaps, to make a movie about the dodgy business on all sides as people from around the world try to exploit China's new prosperity, and there's a lot of the eyebrow-raising material that could have been done with director Mads Brügger's usual method of operation; there's a lot of low-key horror that likely comes from a lot of research and effort to make things authentic. It's an oft-fascinating look at both successful businessmen and those who would pose as such operating in their own interests and basically trying to put one over on one another. It's the wild east out there, business-wise, and the groups of amoral hucksters roaming the land are intriguing subjects.

That wouldn't be very affecting, though, and the most interesting part of the movie soon becomes the contrast between Frederik and Rasmus. Even from their first scene together, it's clear that they value different things, as Frederik sees his former classmates as just potential business partners rather than friends, and his pitch is about removing the annoying parts of owning a dog - clearly, he thinks, most of it. He doesn't seem to enjoy any part of traveling hallway across the world to try his luck in China the way Rasmus does, although it's easy to laugh at the unsophisticated way the latter goes about things. That lack of awareness makes the other half of the character an interesting enigma - is he trying to live life to the fullest given that he likely doesn't have much time left to do so, or is the over- that there is something fundamentally unfair about how Rasmus, who at least seems to have the capacity to enjoy the world, is going to have much less time to do so than the drone he's traveling with?

The lead pair makes it uncomfortable but interesting to watch. Rasmus Bruun places his namesake constantly on the line between terrified awareness and inability to comprehend his condition, all balanced with how this guy is kind of a timid mess to start with. Frederik Cilius doesn't often get to wear his character's heart on his sleeve, but shows a dry skill at playing thwarted ambition, impressing when he does get a chance to show a bit more underneath that layer. They play off each other nicely, with Li Boyang quietly pushing scenes in a certain direction rather than just being invisible as Beyond, and Lee Liheng blankly but intriguingly imperious as Ling.

The screenplay is loose for much of the movie, maybe frustratingly so if you want to get an impression of these guys through what they do and how they do it. Because the point is often showing people who don't have much for resources coming to nothing, much of the middle plays as random and kind of pointless, even if it is good at getting the audience to get familiar enough with Frederik and Rasmus to note small variations. It seems to accomplish the filmmakers' goals, but also dangles a lot that a viewer may want to see as more complete, conventional stories.

It makes for a low-key movie, maybe a bit too much so at points. It might have been a little better served in some ways if the filmmakers had fully gone one way or the other, although the two sides intersect in interesting enough ways to make it worthwhile.

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