Thursday, 6 December 2012
Finnish Cult Movies III
Today is the Finnish Independence Day, and as promised, here is another installment of our ongoing look into Finnish films. The word "cult" on use here, is highly problematic, as most of native films have no following of any kind quite. But this time, there are at least fewer films that are obscure to us natives as well. This installment deals mostly with Finnish comedies, funny or not, and how they reflect our national identity. Happy Independence Day!
Numbskull Emptybrook (Uuno Turhapuro, 1973)
Director: Ere Kokkonen
The longest-running and perhaps the best-loved comedy characterin Finland's history is the loitering Numbskull Emptybrook (henceforth referred to in this text with his original name of Uuno Turhapuro), played by the legendary Vesa-Matti Loiri. The character debuted in the TV programme Spede Show in 1971, and proved to be so popular that co-creator Spede Pasanen as well as his go-to director Ere Kokkonen soon transformed the best sketches into a full-scale movie.
As with James Bond, the still-quite-tame first adventure tends to be forgotten when contrasted with flashier bigger adventures (such as (unofficial titles) Uuno in Psain, Uuno gets a job in the Army or Uuno as the President of Finland) steal the spotlight in people's minds. Uuno represents everything every spineless finnish male dominated by his stronger wife dreams to be: a master in his own rights, a man who survives in any situation and is pleased with little. The first Uuno movie was a massive hit of it's time, gathering over 600 000 viewers.
The formula of the movie is easily explained. Uuno (Loiri) is superbly lazy, greedy and hungry. His wife Elisabeth (Marjatta Raita) is cold, grumpy and bossy, the complete contrast. So, in order to get to eat, have some fun, or to get some loving, Uuno resorts to long-winded explanations and speeches that work within their own internal logic. We see Uuno try to survive through a diet, try to get out to go drinking with his pal Härski (Spede), and to go to his summer cottage.
The old sketches are repeated through two first acts. The last act deals with another of Uuno's main attributes: despite his piggish manners and ghastly appearance, he can be the master in anything when he so chooses. So, in this one it turns out Uuno is a master-class violinist, which is something his greedy neighbor Kotkala-Hammaslärvänen (Juhani Kumpulainen) attempts to exploit.
The early sketches feature some of the funniest Uuno material out there, but there's no hiding the fact that this is cut-and-paste filmmaking. The focus is also lost completely in the final act, which turns out to be quite dull. But the main actors are perfectly cast, even if the Turhapuro family hadn't yet cast some of its best players (such as Uuno's father-in-law, usually played by Tapio Hämäläinen). The scale of the film is refreshingly down-to-earth, mostly dealing with the relationship between one stereotypical married couple. Plus, there are several actually smart visual gags, such as Elisabeth piling up a pyramid of empty beer bottles during her introduction scene, which tells heaps on the conditions she lives in.
Sadly, the success of the first Uuno also changed the course of the careers of Spede and Ere. Where previously they had created quite inventive, unexpected and well-crafted comedy together, from there on out they relied in repeating gags and bits that people already knew. It also didn't help that they started to get less and less money for their projects. Uuno would go on to have 18 more cinematic adventures until the last one debuted in 2004.
Ripa ruostuu (1993)
Director: Christian Lindblad
The 80's and early 90's in Finnish cinema history were notorious times for two reasons. First and foremost, the country suffered from the tightest cencorship board in the whole Europe, which was notoriously bad for getting any movies featuring sex and violence released. For the finnish filmmakers, the National Film Foundation was a bigger problem, since it adamantly refused to give money to any project it deemed unworthwhile. All in all, it was a time when officials and authorities decided what was suitable as art and what wasn't. This Aki Kaurismäki-produced film stems from these problems.
Christian Lindbland's brainchild takes its form from the artiest of films. It is shot on grainy black-and-white tape and at times uses fast-cut collages or montages to advance its plot. Yet the film also ingrates within itself the shunned sex and violence, and a pulp fiction-styled story in a quite clever way. And also a year before Tarantino's big break! At the same time it is a film about filmmaking, which is balancing between the line of art and entertainment anyway.
The sleazy deadbeat Ripa (Sam Huber) wants to be a film director. Yet all his scripts are turned down for having too much sex and violence. He owes a large sum of money to his ex-wife, who pesters him about it constantly. But he also has no other source of income, so he's growing more and more desperate. But at the same time he's quite the ladies' man. A beautiful young bank clerk (Mari Vainio)
falls for him, but he is more interested in solving his monetary problems than to constantly have sex with her.
The film acknowledges it's debt to old film-noir classics when in reality it is more akin to being a Neo-New Wave film. But it manages not to fall into the pit of being too analytical or fancy-pants. It's first and foremost a tale of decadence, a bohemian life that destroys all artistic ambitions one may have. The sleaziness of Depression-era Finland, and common pulp archetypes are brought to life with a confident hand. The prize for the most hilarious character goes to Vesa-Matti Loiri, cameoing as Ripa's businessman father.
Telling anything more about him would be spoiling the film, so seek it out!
Olympian Holiday (Loma, 1976)
Director: Risto Jarva
Of the final three of Jarva's comedies, Loma has been my least favorite. There's actually nothing wrong with the film itself, in fact I find it fairly accuratelly depicts what happens when you have a group of regular finnish folks on a vacation. And that disgust me at some extent. In the 70's mass tourism became more affordable for all finns, and thus Torremolinos, The Canary Islands and Madeira in particular had to suffer through hoardes of backwards finnish folk, warts and all.
The bank clerk Aimo Niemi (Antti Litja) plans to head off to the Innsbruck Winter Olympics on his holiday. But there's a mix-up at the airport and he flies to the Greek Island of Rhodes. He finds out he's been mixed with a woman that shares his surname and thus has been booked to share a hotel room with the cranky woman reporter Marjukka (Tuula Nyman). She rejects Aimo at the get-go, figuring he's up to some tricks to bed him. Aimo hower attempts to enjoy his accidental vacation, even though his suitcase is filled with winter clothes. He just needs to rely on some scissors and a lot of creativity.
Jarva as a filmmaker relies on not telling everything but leaving certain key points somewhere between the images. He trusts the audience to grasp what's going on fairly quickly, and spends more time on the holiday imagery and build-up to embarrassing situations. Litja is great as the quiet, timid and a little spineless archetype of a finnish man, who can't bring himself to complain even when others fumble and mix up things for him. He also gets caught in a triangle drama, since he starts to pine for a Greek woman he sees as a Goddess. At the same time his recluctant roommate slowly starts to warm to him.
But as I said, the main thing that I get from this is how being abroad can really bring up how much the Finns can be jerks. They sing in choir nationalistic Finnish songs all the time, insist on eating Finnish foods and demand to do things the Finnish way. The hard-drinking, partying way isn't depicted here so strongly, the viewpoint is decidedly middle-aged. I had to double-check the film takes place in Rhodes, since the tourist village featured in the film could have been shot anywhere in the world.
Sixpack Movie (Pussikaljaelokuva, 2011)
Director: Ville Jankeri
Only a year old, but since this film is based on the cult novel by Mikko Rimminen, about loitering 20-somethings, it has already gained a following. Rimminen's novel makes it a point to be mostly about nothing, just three buddies nearing 30 drifting along one day in Helsinki's Bronx, Kallio. The book's biggest problem is that every character in it sounds more or less like Mikko Rimminen. There's not a lot of diversity in speech patterns or anything. The book also relies much on long strains-of-thought which could be problematic in another medium. But the film adaptation manages to fix many flaws and work around the problems caused by the flimsy source material.
The tired Marsalkka (Jussi Nikkilä) would just want to sleep in his shoddy apartement, seething in self-pity. Yet his friends Lihi (Ylermi Rajamaa) and Henninen (Eero Milonoff) insist him to venture outside with them, have a few beers and perhaps shoot some dice. Something has also occured in the apartement above Marsalkka's which doesn't make him want to stay home. The trio goes around drinking, talking about this and that, trying to pick up some girls, looking for shoes and earning the anger of a pair of assholish police officers.
The film does reach at times the feeling of the early Seinfeld seasons, where it's about nothing, yet feels comfrotably familiar and is funny at the same time. The motivation for the dudes drifting around is given at certain points the search for an environment to shoot dice, sometimes the need to get away from Kallio. In both cases it does seem like the main characters aren't really trying. The questions on whether these unemployed men have it all right in their lives, is wisely not undelined that much and mostly left to the watcher's imagination.
The three main characters are perfectly cast, and all three make Rimminen's text sound like it could be actually spoken aloud by living persons. Not all the characters are as well-acted and particularly the young girls in the film give at times cringe-worthy performances. The real star of the film is however the neighborhood of Kaillio, a place where a lot of young folks live in seedy apartements and go to pubs in search for cheap beer. The milieu is lovingly shot, even if the geography doesn't make a lick of sense at times. The film can be seen to be a true experience for certain members of the same generation,
Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankarit, 2010)
Director: Dome Karukoski
Two years ago, this comedy was the most watched film in Finnish theatres so it might be too mainstream to warrant a "cult" status. But since somehow this has generated some interest abroad as well (it just received a release in Russian cinemas), it pays to deal with it anyway. At the film's core there is a want to bring a message abroad on how Finns are like, and how Lapland is like, anyway.
Janne (Jussi Vatanen) is a bit dim, jobless young man living in a small town in Lapland. His girlfriend Inari (Pamela Tola) demands that he goes to buy them a digital TV box to view television transmissions. As he just uses the money he's received on beer, Inari tells that she's had enough of his spinelessness and moves out of their home. Jussi promises that he will get a digibox before the night is over. He sets off with his friends Kapu (Jasper Pääkkönen) and Räihönen (Timo Lavikainen) to get such a gizmo from her father in Rovaniemi. But the night is long and the men face various incidents before they can get their hands on the box.
The film's biggest problem which it can't overcome is the fact that the film's central romance doesn't work. Janne is a dumb asshole, with a mean streak (like peeing in his rival's wine bottle) that no one in their right mind would want to succeed. Inari is no more symphathetic, as she's dumb enough to put her whole future and her relationship on such a trivial thing as whether she gets something or not. She harbors a certain secret which would be a lot more comfrotable to talk about face-to-face than to make up quests and send his man there. The film's gender views are aggressively conservative.
Karukoski shoots Lapland and the whole film in particular like ist's a plastic snow-globe, all back lit, colorful and fake-snowy. The rivalry between the main characters and "the wankers" from Kittilä seems to be stolen from The Wedding Waltz, yet is not even the tenth of as funny.
There are still various bits in the film that somewhat work, and are even funny. The momma's boy Räihönen tends to play a show-yer-tits arcade game at a local pub, and later happens to meet the model posing in the pictures at a bar. Marjukka (Miia Nuutila) is desperate enough to agree to have sex with a 20-something virgin creeper, but the pair is seperated because of Jussi's own needs. This sub-plot is quite funny, and would have made a good short film. It's too bad one has to take a lot of wannabe-O Brother Where Art Thou crap before that thing can comfrotably continue.
Makkarakalakeittoa, sano Tympee Huttunen (1988)
Director: Kaarlo Kortelainen
On the most obscure part of this article is this straight-to-VHS sketch comedy that has seen by very few, and can't be said to really have a following, "cult" or otherwise. But dang if it isn't one of the strangest Finnish films, comedies or otherwise, I've ever come across.
The film stars Leo Lastumäki, best known from Sheep Eaters, dealt within this blog's last Cult Movies post. His major role here is "Tympee" Huttunen, a grumpy old man living in an almost desterted village in the middle of nowhere. Whatever happens to him, he describes it to be "Dreary" ("Tympeetä"). The movie's sketches showcase him and the other eccentric occupants of his village (played by such names as Aake Kalliala, Tuija Piepponen and Martti-Mikael Järvinen).
The film seems like it was shot by a number of friends during one drunken weekend at a summer cottage. It does have more professional people involved than that, but the whole thing is as badly scripted, acted and cut. The musical scenes take long, but the music is godawful. Many times the narrator's speak is put over characters talking, and the mumbling by itself is so quaint, one can't often tell what anyone is saying. That's probably for the best since the film's skits are horrible if you get them. When you can't tell what's going on, the film becomes almost surreal.
Huttunen watches his wife's butt as she's kneeling to pick some berries from a bush. The man sees bikini-clad ladies waving for him instead of his old lady. The next shot is the wife being tied and gagged on the back of a mini-tractor Huttunen uses to drive around the field. End skit. There's a musical number about rushing over to say hi to one's neigbors which as a looooong take of an actor saying hi to the camera by lifting each of his arms at times. End skit. Three different scenes of Leo Lastumäki berating a waitress in various ways at the local pub, back-to-back. End skit. Aake Kalliala playing a doctor who harrasses his secretary. Cut these along with very odd reaction shots about various characters that had nothing to do with the sketch, and you have the kind of disgusting sausage-fish-soup the film is named after.
These odd goings-on have nothing to do with each other, so when not understanding the sketch, this becomes an almost lynchian nightmare on how the deserting countryside breaks the last occupants' minds and spirits. That's why they become to act in feverish, odd ways. It may be just a Finnish country comedy at its worst, but it is so poorly made, it makes for all kinds of new interpretations.
★ or ★★★★★