Another Round

Another Round ★★★★

This, a movie I thought I'd watch just for fun, turned out to be more personal than anything I've watched in years.

The most time I'd spent with Danish people was as a young backpacker travelling through Vietnam and Cambodia. Someday I'll finish writing my travel notebook into a proper novel, but the end of my trip from Hanoi saw me renting motorbikes and driving down the coast, then catching an overnight bus to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). I had planned to get up to Thailand from there, but the border crossing was impossible at that time so I instead ended up renting a boat with these two young Danish guys and motoring up the Mekong River into Cambodia. I was in my early 20s and they in their late teens, and we spent a few lazy days mostly sitting on the roof of the barge, drinking bottles of 333 and waving and dancing with the people who lined the riverbank as we passed. It was a surreal time.

I didn't know then that Denmark had such an insane rate of teenage alcoholism, the drinking age there being 16. Those guys (I'll never forget you...Martin?...and...Thomas?) seemed so even-keeled and jovial that I never suspected Denmark had a drinking problem. It could've been because I was living in Korea at the time, probably the most openly alcoholic country in the world. I always joke (though it's true) that it's the only place where it's totally normal to see two businessmen in suits, arms around each other as they stumble home, singing in the streets at 7PM on a Tuesday. Alcohol seems almost less like a problem than a solution in Korea, an outlet for societal rules that dictate who you can be open with and when you can show emotion. It's the great equalizer, and some of my best times in Korea involve drunken noraebang or maekju with beef & leaf.

The primary idea at the heart of this film, that all these stodgy people would probably be a lot happier if they loosened up a little, was pretty appealing to me. But the teaching aspect hit home, too. My family has a lot of teachers in it, and I've seen all kinds of burnout. And I've taught English overseas and seen scenes like in this film, too. As much knowledge or interest as teachers have in their subject, it's often the little personal touches that students remember more than anything else. Besides getting good test grades, they often don't much care about whatever they're studying and would rather know all about the teachers and their personal lives. It's tempting as a teacher to buddy up with students then, to get personally involved with them and make them like you. It's a shortcut to making them try harder in school and care about the class, although (as we see here) it raises all kinds of questions about professionalism and boundaries.

The better solution is to actually make the material itself personal and relatable. It's an absolutely exhausting job to channel passion into a 50 minute class, time after time, day after day. Teachers in the US aren't given the support or compensation to allow for it, and seeing the similar struggle here with Martin and his friends really hit home. They've all "lost that loving feeling", often in more ways than one. They're coming up on middle age too, and the various crises are hitting them all in different ways. As we see each of them connecting with the youths in their school, we see that they want to reconnect with their own youth as well. And that goes back to Denmark's problem with teenage drinking.

Somewhere there's a version of this story more like what I personally experienced. Where one too many nights out binging with friends leads to coming in to work in a... less-than-optimal state. And you wake up and you grow up and you get your shit together. Take that Buddhist middle path, "all things in moderation"....even moderation, sometimes. But that probably makes for a less exciting movie. Personally, I think you could still have these characters learn about themselves and grow without taking it to the level it goes to, but I'm sure a lot of other people want to see a sort of moral lesson in the end, and Denmark certainly needs to hear one it seems.

Still, the way Mikkelsen and company play these early, deadened scenes just begs you to want to see them cut loose. And the way Vinterberg films the later scenes is a clear celebration of life. Apparently that came from conversations with his daughter, who wanted to show that aspect. She was originally going to play one of Mikkelsen's children, but she was killed in a car accident at the start of filming. I can only imagine how this affected the production (the ending was rewritten), but the film is both explicitly and implicitly dedicated to her. Mikkelsen's dancing that was seeded early on seems like a direct address to this "celebration of life" that Ida Vinterberg wanted, even though the ending left me wondering if perhaps the boys hadn't truly learned their lesson... "Another Round" indeed.

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