Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Finnish Cult Movies, part I

Today is the Finnish premiere day of the eagerly awaited Finnish science fiction epic, Iron Sky. Although the film didn't really work for me, it has produced enough enthusiastic buzz that I'm convinced we are witnessing either a major break through hit for the film industry in this country, or at the very least, the birth of an international cult hit. But Finland also has a long film history, alongside which many different kinds of films fit, some of which have a cult status among this country, some of which don't yet even though they would deserve it. I for one would love to raise awareness in Finnish cult cinema, so I'll start this series. I had a lot of candidates on which to write about, so rest assured. There's still a lot more to come.

Star Wreck: In The Pirkinning (2005)
Director: Timo Vuorensola

It actually pains me to compare this comedy with some actual movies, but numbers don't lie: 10 million downloads say that currently the most watched Finnish film ever made is this fan-made amateur film. When looked as a movie, it's not very good. But as a home made project it's actually more interesting. The film's special effects are impressive for being made in someone's mom's basement. And like witnessed in Iron Sky on a bigger scale, these tech students from the city of Tampere are some sort of geniuses in selling their unfinished ideas on the Internet and thus raising money, help and extras to help complete the film.

Due to his previous adventures, Captain Pirk of the spaceship C.C.P. Potkustartti (Samuli Torssonen) is stranded in the 21st century with his crew. Times are desperate since he can't even get laid. But Pirk comes up with a plan to invent the tools they need to get back home, and alter history. When they get back, Pirk is the unquestioned Emperor of the Earth. But once Pirk has conquered the planet, he gets greedy and sets his eyes on more. This leads to a war-declaration on the space fleet led by the ship Babylon 13.

As sci-fi nerds can guess, film's plot exists to put together space fights between star ships from Star Trek and Babylon 5. But like the bad parody makers the film's four writers are, they base their creations around original characters and concepts too tightly. For a viewer not familiar with Star Trek: The Next Generation or Babylon 5, the function of characters and settings taken for granted are left in the dark. There's a huge cast of characters, and only Pirk (Samuli Torssonen) and Babylon 13 Captain Sherrypie (Atte Joutsen) get any serious screentime nor arcs. The film would benefit from a better central character besides the all-around hateable and annoying Pirk. And of course, since the film stars mostly amateurs and crew members and their close relatives, the acting is, simply put, atrocious.

There are a couple of chuckle-worthy gags in this film, that mostly involve shooting someone with a ray gun. But I wouldn't recommend sitting through the film just to see those few bits. In fact, I find it nothing short of a miracle that someone outside Finland would find any interest in the film. The film is strictly for the hardcore tech-nerds and sci-fi overdosers.


Ruusujen aika (1969)
Director: Risto Jarva

Iron Sky and Star Wreck are not by far the only sci-fi movies ever produced in Finland. And not the best, either. Director Risto Jarva tried his hands on doing a prediction about the future already in the 1960's, and he set his film about 50 years from then, to 2012. The film starts out as a what if-scenario, but turns more and more interesting as it goes along. Jarva was interested in the media philosophies of Marshall McLuhan, and thus made a film that wouldn't look too much out of place in David Cronenberg's filmography.

Unlike many other futuristic films at the time, Jarva pictures the future as democratic. Or at least claiming to be democratic when in fact what you can do measures who you are in the society. Historian and documentary maker Raimo Lappalainen (Arto Tuominen) is at the top of his game. After producing a number of highly acclaimed films about the past, he aims to recreate the history of a time period 50 years before. He figures the bast way to accomplish this is to tell a story of a contemporary individual, and chooses Saara, a young woman who died tragically. He picks the beautiful young athlete Kisse Haavisto (Ritva Vepsä) to play her, and starts to go through her life events with her in real life. The director also develops a relationship with his starlet, which may jeopardize the whole project.

The film has some bitter comments about documentarists who claim to be objective observers of their subjects. Raimo thinks he's almost an invisible force behind his work, but in reality his underlying preconceptions, ideas and emotions drive his work. Because he can't come to terms in admitting this, he also acts coldly and matter-of-factly in his life. In other words, the maker gets tangled in the media for which he's producing content, making him and his film inseparable. Borrowing from Hitchcock's Vertigo, his raising obsessions also make him manipulate and transform his loved one into something he truly desires. In this case it's an idea of the past that never existed in the first place.

The film's technology is decidedly 60's, as is the extended "documentary" sequences showing how world developed to this point. Jarva does acknowledge in his work that films about a different time period are always tied to the concepts of the time it was created. But he still had some very apt ideas about the future, which came to pass, such as the importance of information, telecommunication and hand-held devices. Too bad the free sexuality and steamy swinger ball games haven't also made it to our day.


Sensuela (1973)
Director: Teuvo Tulio

Think the concept "Nazis on the moon" makes a weird movie? Or "an archeological dig reveals an evil Santa Claus that starts to kidnap children"? Neither of those movies can hold a candle in weirdness for the swan song of the acclaimed melodrama director Teuvo Tulio. The film spent 10 years in the making and thus forced the director into some pretty creative solutions in attempting to hide the fact. The end result is equal parts a travel advertisement to Finland and a skin flick. It is 100% bonkers and mere words can't even describe how much so. If one film from this post would deserve to break big into the hearts of lovers of camp and cult cinema everywhere, it is this.

During World War II, the German pilot Hans (Mauritz Åkerman) crash lands into Lapland. A group of Sami reindeer herders rescue him from the wreck, and the beautiful Laila (Marianne Mardi) nurses him back to health. During the following weeks, Laila begins to develop a crush to Hans, much to the dismay of his strict, old-fashioned father Aslak (Ossi Elstelä). But since the course of the war turns, Hans must soon flee for his life, leaving his helpers behind. After years and years (though no one seems to get a day older), Hans suddenly returns, now as a successful photographer, and persuades Laila to come with him to Helsinki. They run off together, to the anger of Aslak.

In Helsinki it turns out that Hans is living in a world of decadence. He's having odd orgies where swingers dress up as skeletons and jump around. And some sex is being had as well. The maltreated Laila can't handle such a life, and escapes. She falls to the factory worker Pekka (Ismo Saario), but doesn't tell him anything about Hans. But for one poor choice, this natural child has wrecked her entire life and things soon fall apart like dominoes. Aslak will have his brutal vengeance on the one who betrayed the purest of loves – and it's a scene so odd that the viewer's jaw will surely drop to the floor.

Okay, for a list of things hilarious in this film, let's start with the film's minimal budget. It can be seen from oddly minimalistic sets such as an aeroplane's cockpit that looks like a couple of drapes with a chair and a steering wheel in the front. Or from the use of stuffed animals alongside archive footage in the reindeer-herding scenes. Even more odd is the dubbing, which even in Finnish sounds oddly tacked on. Tulio seemingly shot the film silent and had actors dub in lines years later – and not necessarily even the same actors. Even many sound effects and animal sounds are made by people. The music consists of familiar classical pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius, but never quite fitting on what's going on on screen. This makes in particular the love-making scenes oddly uncomfortable because they have a gloomy, rumbling classical score to them. And boy, there is a lot of sex scenes in this. They rarely show anything below the navel, but women's breasts in particular are shown more often than not. For foreign people admiring the nudity, the film has also a lengthy, and frankly useless, scene set in a sauna.

The film can't decide whether it's set in the 40's, 50's, 60's or 70's, and elements of all decades show in the film. To top the illogical plot, the film's editing sometimes intercuts two things that have nothing to do with each other. Thus, for instance, it seems Aslak is looking worriedly at Laila having sex with Hans when the love-making pair should be in Helsinki and Aslak in Lapland. The dialogue is simply hilarious, stating obvious facts and arising odd reactions no real human being would have. The acting is hilariously over-the-top, particularly Elstelä's constantly raging Aslak.

With all these flaws altogether, the film is oddly psychedelic. Tulio doesn't concern himself on minute detail (or would want to hire assistants who would), he just wants to put colorful visions (that are cheap at the same time) on screen. It is a film about the loss of innocence, but since it seems like it was made by people as innocent as not having any idea of what happens in orgies or bordellos, the message is quite underwhelming.

★ or ★★★★★

Young Love (2001)
Director: Arto Lehkamo

There's been a lot of Teen films made in Finland during the last few decades, and with almost all of them rotten. And this is about a case in point. For the fans of hilariously awful, there's this Romance film, that manages to be fundamentalist christian and perversely voyeuristic at the same time.

The 13-year-old Jukka (Joonas Nordman) moves into a new city with his mother. Mummy dearest is having her hands filled with work while at the school Jukka is called names and bullied. But he discovers his father's old camera and becomes interested in photography. The school's gay communist art teacher(!), Martti (Pekka Lukka) helps him become started, teaching him about zooms. And as a 13-year-old is won't to do, Jukka uses his camera's zoom to spy on a girl through his window. This girl is the late-teenaged Johanna (Saija Lentonen), who likes to strip in front of a window and admire herself from the mirror until her stepfather comes home drunk and beats her. One night, Johanna catches Jukka spying on her, immediately figures out where he lives, and comes to the door to demand for him to stop. But Jukka suggests to her to become a model. As this has been her dream, the duo shake hands and Jukka begins as her manager and trusted photographer. They aim to enter her in a Miss Teen pageant, but Jukka also begins to blossom into love with his partner.

For any viewing experience of Young Love, the making-of feature on the DVD of the movie is an essential addition. That clears up a little of the thick fog surrounding the question: what the hell was the director thinking? On the documentary, Lehkamo seems pleased of having snuck in some of his own messages in his film. This is shown in the scenes where the gay Martti is dying (presumably of AIDS) and renounces his wicked communist-homosexual ways and embraces God. This has little to do with the rest of the plot, as do the lingering shots of the teenaged Lentonen stripping. These scenes are lingered on so lovingly and for such a long time that even the most perverted audience members start to feel uncomfortable. Sadly, these few amazingly awful scenes happen in a movie that's mostly just bland and thoroughly mediocre. Lehkamo clearly has no idea about how teenagers talk, act, or what they do, and also on how to attract them to see his film. A music video-like scene with the band Kemopetrol playing in the end didn't cut the cheese and the film flopped quite badly.

Lehkamo himself went into politics after that but was kicked out from the Christian Democrats party for having way too fundamentalist views on politics. Nordman came a stand up comedian when he grew up.

★★ (★ or ★★★★★ with the making of-documentary)

The Hangover (Baksmälla, 1973)
Director: Jörn Donner

Long before The Wolf Pack was first conceived, Finnish culture multitalent Jörn Donner tangled with an idea that starts out similar. But it turns out to be something different altogether, and Donner uses the cheesy set-up to ponder about the nature of relationships, as well as have some t&a on screen (so the film could be sold as Scandinavian erotica), and to have fun with the film he's making. Donner is one of the finest filmmakers in Finland, which is why it's so strange he has had little respect inside or outside of Finland for his films. He's better known for his books, politics, starting the Finnish film archive and for producing some of his friend Ingmar Bergman's more well-received films.

The director plays Leif, as clear as Donner's own alter-ego as all of the characters he plays. Leif is a used car salesman, who wakes up in a weird house after a night of heavy drinking from which he remembers nothing. But looking at his ring finger he soon finds that he's been married to a woman, Lena (Dianne Kjaer). He then walks around her house, trying to remember. Leif discovers another woman sleeping in another room, and finds out he's already cheated on his new wife with her. Leif trying to stay on top of the situation is intercut with the new married couple talking about their former romantic life and disappointments therein.

Baksmälla (1973) UK TRAILER by klubbsuper8

Donner's film takes a very carnevalistic approach to the subject, and it is very funny. The film is filled with things repeating themselves over and over again, mundane and silly alike. For instance, an aeroplane takes off repeatedly, which has little to do with anything. The film's timeline is skewered and anti-linear. In fact, thanks to this it may be the first arthouse film to be watched while having a massive hangover, when one isn't necessarily the most observing. It's hard to call the film a farce, though. Because of the film's tone, it is all the more surprising when it strikes with surprisingly melancholic pieces on loves lost and unrequited. Leif does attempt to build a spine and a pair during the film if only because he doesn't want to hurt his new wife badly again. Hijinks ensue, and popular comedian-singer Vesa-Matti Loiri has a cameo.


Laulu (1986)
Directors: Arto af Hällström, Janne Kuusi

A real cult classic is hard to find, and beloved by those few that have seen it. A reason for this can be that the film is different from anything else and thus quite hard to describe. On top, this film seems to be a documentary about Nightlife in Helsinki, framed by the live performances of the band Sielun veljet. But there are also acted sequences such as the actor Kari Väänänen playing a drunk telling random people his views about the facts of life. And there's an interview with a scientist (named Paavo like my name!) who has utopistic views about the future. In fact, the film represents neorealism, a pseudo-documentary that sums up the artistic feelings in Finland in the 80's. The film was a production by Ryhmäteatteri, a theatrical group looking to break boundaries in the early-to-mid-80s. The result is a true underground film.

It's hard to figure out anything to say about Laulu, because it isn't the sort of film that comes to any conclusions. It raises thoughts, but they come from the person viewing them, the makers are not spoon feeding any ideas. The film objectively just shows a series of various things happening at night time, whether entertaining, cultural, or borderline illegal. Even the off cross-cutting or jumping isn't meant to compare these events, it's just to keep the viewer on his or her toes. The impressions come from within the scenes themselves. The music scenes are sweaty and intimate, or in the case of the scene depicting the humor rock band Lapinlahden linnut, oddly contrasting lowbrow humour with it's rich elitist audience. The film mostly concerns little people and little moments in more poor places. The overall mood is quite gloomy and melancholic. Paavo's future scenarios don't seem all that plausible in a city where drunken people brawl and a taxi ride from the East to downtown doesn't reveal any people but only the dark, rain washed streets. This would be an utopia for only Travis Bickle.

★★★ 1/2


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