TEDDY BEAR is the name of a Danish film that is known in its native country as TEN HOURS TO PARADISE. It’s possible that I’m not the only English-speaker who finds the title TEN HOURS TO PARADISE to sounds a little bit porn-y, or maybe they figured it’d be better business to have a little healthy box-office confusion with another 2012 film. I’m pretty sure I first found out about the movie from seeing a small piece on it in Film Comment, but I never made it to the theater. In that oversight I had plenty of company: As it turned out, almost literally nobody went to see TEDDY BEAR when it played in the U.S., and that’s a damn shame.
Director/co-writer Mads Matthiesen originally began this story as a short film called DENNIS, which also starred his leading man, Kim Kold, as the title character. TEDDY BEAR expands Dennis’s story into a modest but ingratiating feature film about love in its most unlikely forms.
Dennis is an avid bodybuilder, which is obvious the second you get a look at him. He’s the size of two Frankensteins soddered together at the seams. In real life, Kim Kold is a prize-winning bodybuilder, which, again, makes sense, because that’d be a hard thing to fake. What is surprising is that he was a non-actor before Mads Matthiesen cast him, because he does such a nice job centering his first feature film — no easy feat for an actor of any size.
Dennis is nearly forty and still lives at home with his mother (Elsebeth Steentoft), who is quietly but severely domineering. The filmmaking is non-obtrusive, subtle, pseudo-documentarian, observant. A lot of character work is accomplished with very little dialogue. It doesn’t take long to establish Mom is a real beast in a tiny frame: While Dennis is using the shower, she comes in and uses the toilet, for example. That kind of shit is gonna mess with a dude’s head, no matter how scary-looking he is.
For this reason, and for many reasons that are suggested but unseen, such as the story behind the absence of Dennis’s father, Dennis is a shy, reflective, reserved man-child who is uneasy around single women. He looks like Sean Bean if Sean Bean were hit by a gamma-bomb, but his biggest problem is talking to girls. And that’s all he wants. One day, Dennis and his mom visit his R. Crumb of an uncle, who has just married a Thai woman. Uncle Bent tells Dennis it’s easier to meet women over there. That gives Dennis an idea.
He tells his mom he’s got an out-of-town bodybuilding competition, and heads to Thailand in search of love. Uncle Bent puts Dennis in touch with an odd American man (David Winters, who has a Wikipedia entry you absolutely have to read, having produced Raquel Welch’s TV special RAQUEL! among other adventures) — but this guy turns out to be exactly the kind of creep you may be expecting to meet when you hear “American man in Thailand.” Dennis is a naïf — it simply never occurred to him to take a sex vacation. He really just wants to meet a nice girl. And then he does. Disillusioned with the nightlife, he retreats to the comfort of the local gym, where he eventually becomes involved with the owner (Lamaiporn Sangmanee Hougaard), a widow who was left the place by her late husband. The relationship gets serious fast — the main dramatic question of TEDDY BEAR, then, is how Mom’s going to take the news.
This isn’t heavy plotting. This isn’t a steady stream of dense wordplay. This isn’t explosive drama. It’s an inward piece. Very low-key. Unassuming. Believable. Which is odd, since there’s such an outsized figure in the center. Dennis doesn’t entirely look like a real person, but he proves to be a very winning one. In TEDDY BEAR , director Matthiesen and cinematographer Laust Trier-Mørk get a lot of visual mileage out of the disparity between the massive bodybuilder and all the tinier or odder-shaped people who surround him, but no one is being lampooned. It’s a movie abundant with heart. It leads to reconsideration of stereotypes, which I endorse and appreciate. I’m as guilty as anyone as laughing off those huge muscle guys at the gym. “At a certain point, isn’t that more than enough weight-lifting?” Right? But here’s what I never think about: I’m well acquainted with my own demons. They’re half the reason I write every day like my life depends on it, regardless of compensation. Those are my demons. I always thought they were pretty fierce. But what kind of demons power a guy like Dennis to do what he does? Must be pretty fearsome in their own right. That’s not really the point of the movie, but the instinct towards more empathy certainly is.
Kim Kold can now be seen in the newest FAST & FURIOUS movie. He plays an evil henchman who takes a flying headbutt from Vin Diesel, because that’s what we do in America with guys who look like him. Seeing that movie last week is what reminded me to catch up with TEDDY BEAR this week, and I’m obviously glad I did. It’s a much friendlier showcase for a hugely unlikely leading man.