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Nordic Hell

You don't have to be crazy to enter the Kingdom Hospital, but it sure helps.

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"Like ER on acid" is how one critic described Lars von Trier's epic 1995 comedy The Kingdom, a wickedly funny mix of soap opera, supernatural thriller, and satire set inside a Copenhagen hospital. Produced as a four-part television miniseries (the first installment of an eventual thirteen-part series) for Danish TV, the episodes were later spliced together and released theatrically in the United States. The resulting four-and-a-half-hour feature quickly acquired the cult status of Twin Peaks, David Lynch's equally demented foray into television.

Well, fans of The Kingdom can rejoice. The second marathon chapter of the series arrives this week--with a running time of nearly five hours--and proves just as compulsively watchable as the first. While a familiarity with The Kingdom (available on video) is not a prerequisite for enjoying The Kingdom II, it does provide a helpful introduction to the labyrinthine web of characters and subplots involved in the story.

As The Kingdom II opens, Mrs. Drusse (Kirsten Rolffes), the amateur spiritualist whose fondness for faking illnesses has made her the hospital's star patient, is being discharged yet again. She is loath to leave the hospital, for her work there--helping wee Mary, the restless spirit who has been haunting the hospital's elevator shaft ever since her murder back in 1919--is unfinished. Providence intervenes when Mrs. Drusse is struck by an ambulance as she crosses the road and she has to be rushed back inside.

Dr. Stig Helmer (Ernst-Hugo Järegäard), the arrogant, brow-beating Swedish neurosurgeon who loathes and is loathed in equal measure, has just returned from Haiti with a voodoo potion he plans to administer to his nemesis Hook (Soren Pilmark), the junior resident who is leading the opposition to the incompetent, Dane-hating Swede. It is Hook who has obtained a copy of the surgical report which proves that Helmer bungled an operation on nine-year-old Mona (Laura Christensen), the bright-eyed child who now sits, brain-damaged, in her hospital bed.

Hook's love interest, Judith (Birgitte Raaberg), an intern at the hospital, gives birth to Little Brother, whose monstrously deformed body is in heartbreaking contrast to his angelic soul. Little Brother, who seems to be growing at an alarming--even inhuman--rate, is Judith's child by her former lover, Dr. Aage KrYger (Udo Kier), the sinister, long-dead physician who also turns out to be wee Mary's father.

Overall, Kingdom II is faster-paced than its predecessor and the camera work even more convulsively free-form (similar to that in von Trier's breakout film, 1996's Breaking the Waves. Bathed in orange and yellow tints, everything has a gritty, video look and feel. All the familiar faces reappear--Moesgaard (Holger Juul Hansen), the hospitals' affable but witless head of neurosurgery; pathologist Bondo (Baard Owe), who is dying from the diseased liver he had transplanted into his own body; anesthetist Rigmor (Ghita Norby), still trying to maneuver Helmer onto the wedding altar; and the endearing Down's syndrome dishwashers who act as the movie's Greek chorus.

Several new subplots and characters have also been added, although the one involving a Timothy Leary-like psychiatrist, whom Moesgaard consults when he feels weighed down by his official duties, doesn't work. The character just doesn't fit in with the rest of the bunch. And things get out of hand in the final reel, with plots and subplots accelerating at a demonic and desperate pace (anyone expecting all the loose ends to be tied up will be frustrated; the project was always planned as a thirteen-part series). But like its forerunner, Kingdom II proves a hellish, often hilarious, totally absorbing epic that possesses a most unexpected warmth. Strange as it may sound, viewers actually care about the characters. Perhaps a television network such as A&E will be daring enough to run the series the way it is meant to be seen, on a weekly basis. The Kingdom would give both ER and Twin Peaks a run for their money.

The Kingdom II.
Directed by Lars von Trier. Written by von Trier. Starring Kirsten Rolffes, Ernst-Hugo Jaregaard, Soren Pilmark, Laura Christensen, Birgette Raaberg, and Ugo Kier.

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