It’s Juhannuspäivä in Finland — midsummer, that is. The whole long weekend where a lot of Finns head out to their little cottages for fun in the water and woods, saunas (of course) and a bonfire under the midnight sun. Yes, there is drinking and sausages, too. Traditionally it was a time for spells to increase fertility on your farm including finding a spouse.
If you’re far from Finland this weekend (sob and shout out to my cousins in Kemi!) you could do worse than enjoy some great Finnish films. Not quite as well known as its Scandinavian neighbours to the west nor Russia to its east, the Baltic nation offers a uniquely rich national cinema that stands out in a homogenous filmmaking landscape.
I have to start with Aki Kaurismäki because well, you have to do so. Legendarily elusive of serious discussion and dismissive of any praise, he nonetheless reigns supreme because he’s at least had some fame outside Finland though not quite on the level of Renny Harlin. Harlin, despite sneaking in references to Finland in every single film, really remains a Hollywood director who comes from Finland. Kaurismäki captures the black humour and hopeful melancholy that permeate so much Finnish creativity (Angry Birds aside). I chose Ariel because it’s the first of his films I saw and it made me laugh so hard even though it’s also very dark (as this clip demonstrates). But see all of them! Seriously: all.
Chances are if you know anything about Finland and you’re a skulk member, you may know the wonderful Moomins. I considered putting one of the Moomin films here — Comet in Moominland is just wonderful and really captures the books! — but even more fascinating to me is this documentary on the artist who created them. Haru, The Island of the Solitary shows the rough little island where Tove Jansson spent much of her summers with her partner ‘Tooti’ (Tuulikki Pietilä). There are a couple of wonderful biographies of the artist that show her amazing work beyond the Moomins and the swirl of a life she had, but somehow the brutal simplicity of this island life stands out.
When did these filmmakers look into my dreams? I am, perhaps, one of a small number who form the ideal audience for this film that spins together Finnish mythology and wu xia action, but I’m sure its magic will appeal to a wide audience—if they can get over the strangeness of the concept.
Admittedly Jade Warrior sounds a bit esoteric: a mixture of the ancient Finnish story collection, The Kalevala, and the sword and sorcery of early China—with a little modern Helsinki life thrown in, too. It’s wu xia and urban fantasy and a whole lot more (see my long review here) but it’s a real fun film that has a lot to recommend it.
When’s the last time you saw a good sledgehammer fight anyway?
Härmä — In the plainlands of Ostrobothnia, Western Finland, a tradition prevails, according to which the first-born son inherits everything and the remaining offspring must fend for themselves. The law has been cast aside in many areas and groups of men, knife-wielding thugs, nicknamed ‘toughs’, control the fields. The blade rules the land. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH, directed by Jukka-Pekka Siili, had its international market premiere in Cannes 2012.
When I saw there was a Finnish ‘Western’ you know I had to have it. Ignore the attempts to market it as Once Upon a Time in the North. It’s based on a very real phenomenon of the knife-gangs who strong-armed folks in the sparsely inhabited west in the late 19th century. When you’re accustomed to the hail of bullets in modern Westerns, it’s a bit disconcerting to see someone whip out a knife with menace (and impossible not to think of Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid). But the knife fights are well done — in fact all the action is nicely done. (See my long review here).
Of course I can’t skip over Rare Exports. What a wonderful film! And filmed in beautiful Lapland. Love that tagline: “This Christmas EVERYONE will believe in Santa!” Be warned: Santa may not be quite what you were expecting! I think the less I tell you about this, the better. Just see the movie. Even Hollywood was sufficiently impressed to team this crew up with Samuel L. Jackson for Big Game.