By Elias Savada.
Aki Kaurismäki may have to scooch over a bit to make room in the upper tier of Finnish cinema for thirty-something director Juho Kuosmanen. While Kaurismäki’s deadpan style has spanned 18 features since 1983, the 60-year-old auteur said his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, would be his last. While there are plenty of directors that have been born, bred, and pumped up in the country – which caters to the largest proportion of coffee drinkers worldwide (more than three times the U.S. per capita numbers!) – churning out comedies and action films in Lapland (see my review of Big Game from last year), The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is different and relatively caffeine-free. It’s a small, lovely, slice-of-life drama that hits all the right, somber notes. You don’t usually get that in a sports movie.
While it took Kaurismäki a few features to hit his stride, Kuosmanen has been strong out of the gate. His first long form work was selected as the Finnish entry in the foreign language film category for this year’s Oscars (it didn’t make the final cut), after having won the Prize Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival a year ago. He’s done about a half-dozen shorts. One, Taulukauppiaat (The Painting Sellers), which runs about an hour and was a thesis project, won the 2010 Cinefondation Award at Cannes. That prize guaranteed Kuosmanen’s rookie feature would have an international premiere as an official selection at Cannes. That’s a huge burden on any up-and-coming filmmaker; many have a hard time following up. For Kuosmanen, he was concerned (and a little terrified) about meeting expectations. He found his answer in a true story of another contender, Olli Mäki, a legendary Finnish prizefighter.
The time is 1962. It’s a black-and-white world, almost a newsreel kind of place as envisioned by the director, writer (Kuosmanen also, co-scripting with Mikko Myllylahti), and oft-lauded cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi, the director’s frequent collaborator. The grainy look of the film is reminiscent of early French New Wave, with a monochromatic texture courtesy of the smaller gauge 16mm Kodak Tri-X film, for years (before video, then digital) the stock size used by amateur cinema enthusiasts and photojournalists. Theatrical features, if using film at all these days, predominantly use the 35mm format. The choice here works wonderfully.
The diminutive, modest Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) is a contender for the featherweight championship of the world, prepping for a bout in Helsinki with American Davey Moore. There’s a slight distraction, though, and her name is Raija Jänkä (Oona Airola), the girl next door in Olli’s north coastal hometown of Kokkola, a long, 10-hour train ride away. She’s no femme fatale in a noirish world, just a wholesome gal with a lovely smile. Someone who likes his company.
The give-and-take between the fighter and promoter shows the strains the former must endure. At a press conference before the fight, Olli is way too forthright for his overbearing manager, Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff). “I’m happy to be able to fight such a good boxer. At least I won’t be losing to a bad one.” Yeah, not the in-your-face approach that Elis needs his fighter to use for psyching out an opponent, or to help interest any commercial prospects to fund the Finnish champ. The love-struck, fame-averse Olli has got to be one of the most peaceful boxers ever – he wouldn’t kill a fly, literally – and Elis wears an unfeeling shade of ruthlessness.
While Milonoff is a veteran of over 15 features, both Lahti and Airola are appearing in their first. Lahti is especially effective as the restrained 60-kg pugilist. Kuosmanen plays with the shyness of the lead characters by introducing a faux documentary film unit into the mix. Even if the camera is not following Raija, she feels the world is watching. One telling moment, after a session at the big city hairdresser that annoyingly curls up her coiffure, she’s more at ease as the plain Jane, and within minutes, she’s back in the old hairdo.
The day-in-the-life approach follows the fragmented lead-up to the fight, which is merely a blip in the film, a sequence not at all like Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. I was impressed by the varied audio mix here, ranging from crowd roars to near muffled silence, depending on the POV. For Kuosmanen, The Happiest Day… is really a love story, and the low-key attitude is what makes it such a winning film. I also noticed that the director likes water, whether his characters are swimming in it (purification?) or getting drenching in a torrential rain (the cold gloominess of Helsinki, or the hardheartedness of the fighting business?).
The real twosome that inspired this movie have a lovely cameo at the end of the film, playing an old, happy couple in the harbor. Like the anti-hero it embraces, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a knockout.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).