Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Tribeca ’18: The Saint Bernard Syndicate

The underlying business plan has potential. Dogs are definitely a status symbol for China’s privileged elite and growing middle class. Hence, the success of A Dog’s Purpose at the Chinese box office. A darker manifestation of the trend is the rapacious demand for Tibetan mastiffs, as seen in Pema Tseden’s Old Dog. Frederik Jorgensen wants to breed and sell Saint Bernards, starting in the go-go city of Chongqing, but he is profoundly ill-suited to doing business in China. His new Danish investor seems even sillier, but his guileless blundering might be slightly more effective, but only slightly, in madcap documentarian Mads Brügger’s narrative feature debut, The Saint Bernard Syndicate, which screens during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

Even though Rasmus Bruun attended one of Denmark’s most prestigious prep schools, he has worked crummy retail jobs all his adult life. Even though Jorgensen attended the same school, he has squandered his father’s patience with one failed investment scheme after another. When they reconnect at a reunion, Bruun is skeptical of Jorgensen’s pitch, but when he is shockingly diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he decides to take a chance and live a little in China. Of course, he does not have the kind of inheritance Jorgensen assumes, but it will not matter if they can quickly line up a Chinese investor. Their ace in the hole will be Dollar, a big slobbering Saint Bernard Jorgensen kidnaps from his father.

Needless to say, the ins and outs of Chinese co-ventures are trickier than Jorgensen assumed. He also resents Bruun’s determination to be an active participate in all stages of the process, especially when potential investors keep assuming he is the primary boss. Yet, when things really get dicey, they will have to rely on each other.

Given Brügger’s track record as a New Journalist provocateur, it is impossible to watch Syndicate and not wonder what it could have been if he had made it as documentary, in the style of The Ambassador, especially since selling Saint Bernard dogs in China should be considerably less dangerous than trying to smuggle diamonds out of the Central African Republic using dodgy diplomatic credentials (but this is Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed Jinping’s China, so maybe you never know for sure).

The attitude is still unmistakable subversive and intended to foster free-thinking. It is safe to say Chinese joint-ventures do not look like such a swell idea after watching Syndicate. You can also see a kinship between the real-life comedy team of Bruun and Jorgensen with Simon Jul Jorgensen and Jacob Nossell, who joined Brügger in North Korea for the propaganda expose Red Chapel, and Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen, the duo responsible for the Klown franchise.

Bruun and Jorgensen adroitly play off each other, developing some intriguingly ambiguous chemistry. Li Boyang is also a charismatic good sport as their loyal Chinese assistant, Beyond. However, Odessa totally steals the show as Dollar, which should come as no surprise.

Brügger vividly captures the big, intimidating nature of Mainland mega-cities. This would be a hard place to be scuffling, especially if you had accrued a lot of bad karma. Just ask Jorgensen. Syndicate is funny and sad in way that are quite perceptive. It is a good, solid film, but fans will really want to see another Mad Mads Brügger docu-provocation. Recommended as the smart, honest work of cinema that it is, The Saint Bernard Syndicate screens again tonight (4/25), as part of this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.