Wednesday, 20 April 2011

SEF - The Festival for Finnish Films 2011

Although I lived in the culturally-challenged city of Turku for years, I never actually visited its biggest film festival. But this year marked the 20th anniversary of the Festival for Finnish Films (SEF - Suomalaisen elokuvan festivaali) and the programme included a tasty sampling of rare finnish sci-fi films, a sampling of the finest finnish documentaries, and lesser-seen classics from the past. After I moved from Turku, there has been a reconstruction of an auditorium to become a movie theatre for arthouse films. No longer did I have to sit in Finnkino's blockbuster benches while Hop's music is playing loud in another theatre, to watch fine finnish films. Truly, this was something I could not stay away from.

Finnish films are known to be a bit gloomy. Indeed, many of the films I saw at the festival were themed after some of our worst emotions. The same emotions, in fact, as the bosses in the videogame Metal Gear Solid 3. So if you'll excuse me I'll sum up my reviews with a parable to the game. If you don't know your MGS's, just ignore this pathetic search for eccentricity.

Helsinki, Forever (Helsinki, ikuisesti)
Director: Peter von Bagh. 2008.

This city symphony had been playing daily for free in Kino Engel (attached to a museum) for years until it was recently stopped. So it was a bit silly to see it in Turku for the first time but it was by no means a waste of time. The accomplished film critic and movie historian Peter von Bagh has sampled his film only from earlier films and pictures of paintings and old photographs. This is a beautiful collage of stories from my home town. The film clips and musical choices are expertly chosen and the film gives new angles from which to look at familiar places in the city. The film's athmosphere is melancholic, reminiscing of buildings long since demolished and old different-flavoured areas long since transformed into something more convinient for modern city-dwellers.

Yet the film does have a flaw or two: a lack of focus and little to no plotline of which to follow. The film bounces around with clips from different eras and places in (mostly central) Helsinki following each other in a random order. The film is not confusing or hard to follow, yet it does feel like a museum film which anyone can start watching from any random point on. I fell asleep for a while, yet had no idea how long, as I didn't feel like I missed anything major. So it's a beautiful clip show, yet not as big a piece of art as some of the films it riffs, most noticeably Aki Kaurismäki's Helsinki-centred masterpieces.


If this were a Metal Gear Solid 3 villain: The End - a film that seemed to be born old and feels itself too dated for this world, although it still has a lot to prove. Also von Bagh borrows from other sources quite like End's parrot borrows its vocabulary from people.

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Director: Lasse Naukkarinen. 1984.

Another collage-like documentary film, although this one did have a plot and a point which to follow. Naukkarinen's film follows different events around Helsinki and Finland in the year 1984. He contrasts the idle luxuries of stuff like American Car Shows, art performances and parties for the graduating high school students to winos falling from park benches, bothering passers-by or living in the middle of a forest without a house. Naukkarinen has chosen to depict social differences and different rituals, some of which are taken for granted, some of which are a special occasion to try to prove a point. These news items of the time include a taxi march for a murdered colleague, and a peace rally to get USA out of Nicaragua. In the end the viewer can make up his/her own mind of what to think about these rituals and the society us Finns live in. The cinematography is exceptionally great for a finnish documentary. Images such as children picking up candy from a puddle of mud linger on in the subconscious for a long time.

Of course the editing and contrasting of the film comments on the way of the unequal world in that year pretty heavily. My friend suggested that the title actually refers to the camera touring some pretty painful pressure points of the society, which are seldom commented by those in power. It's a portrait of our northern "welfare" state, where people usually prefer to keep silent than to complain about wrongs. Towards the end the film goes a little bit to the pathetic side with its cross-cutting and criticism, but nevertheless the document of the times is still very much poignant and powerful today.


If this were a MGS3 villain: The Boss - it looms lofty as one of the greatest of its kind, yet is smart enough not to reveal all its cards to you at the beginning.

Directors: Juha Rosma, Jussi Parviainen. 1986.

I saw this for the second time since the gala screening in Night Visions last autumn. Yet it held together maybe a little bit better the second time. Knowing the film's episodic structure with only a flimsy strain of plot beforehand prevents the distraction from the experience. For this is an emotion-based rather than plot-based film.

The melancholy nature of the film came through a little stronger this time around. The Star/screenwriter/uncredited co-director Jussi Parviainen clearly had a sort of weltschmertz around him at the time he wrote the script. The main character Juska Paarma (Parviainen), resurrected from the dead, is unable to work as a human being anymore. He is doomed to wander meeting his old acquaintanced, pining for having sex with the women or having a drink with his buddies. As the other characters in the film represent his memories of the people in his life, they are presented one-sided and emphasizing certain characteristics over others. The film works in a weird metaphysical level. Emotionally Paarma can still express anger, sadness and cold acceptance and tries to come to terms with the people in his past life. Some end with a better closure than others. All still end with a shotgun shot from Paarma's weapon.

It was also wonderful to revisit the DoP Slawomir Idziak's fine-looking imagery. His hand-crafetd cinematography is clearly done by beautiful painted lenses and without a common language with either the director or the screenwriter. Had they been able to communicate with each other better, I have no doubt this would've ended up as one of the best-looking finnish films of all time. It is still one of the country's funniest art films, largely thanks to Aake Kalliala's hilarious (probably improvised) dialogue. I wish he had made more films in his prime rather than focusing on theatre or television soap operas.


Parviainen introduced the film in this festival as well. His stories streched to even more weid territories this time around. He told us about Spanish theatre where horses rape people for instance.

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Sorrow

Onnellinen ministeri
Director: Toivo Särkkä. 1941.

Just a brief note about this, as I only went into the theatre to sleep a couple of hours to be able to watch other films later. This is a finnish musical made during the wartime. Because of this it is very uplifting, peppy and optimistic in nature. A country at war needed escapism, not realism. It is a story of the daughter of a secretary of a state who has ended up in the middle of a raunchy advertizing campaign. The artist of the ad poster found a picture of her and fell in love with it. He created the ad campaign without knowing who the model was. To avoid scandals the SoS's daughter comes up with another identity, a street-smart working-class girl. The plot is, of course as predictable as they come in this sort of films. Yet the film did have a likeable aura and the songs were pretty good. I haven't watched this sort of movies too much but this was nice enough to be recommended.

Back to the USSR (Takaisin Ryssiin)
Director: Jari Halonen. 1992.

I had nothing to prepare me for the greatness which is Jari Halonen's first feature film. It is a satire about the affects of the fall of the Soviet Union laced with pitch black humour. Reima Elo (the superb Jorma Tommila) is an angry man, full of piss and vinegar. His ex-wife won't let him meet his daughter, he's unemployed and the only communist in a small village. After a lifetime of useless fighting for a revolution or just fighting for the hell of it, Reima decides to kill himself. But at the same time a mysterious stranger comes to him wanting to rent a room. The guest is revealed to be the vampire Vladimir Lenin (Taisto Reimaluoto). Having an undead bloodsucker on his side gives Reima a will to live, as well as some brand new ideas about crushing the bourgeoise and bringing about the long-awaited revolution.

The anarchistic fim has been made with a pittance, but with so much imagination and inventiveness that it turns its downsides to its benefits. Thus the main village is built with shoddy houses that can fall apart in the middle of shenanigans. There's mud and filth everywhere and the society where everyone is bourgeoise can't be seen as any sort of ideal anyway. But communism is hardly a remedy. Reima is a raving lunatic, always furious, swearing and violent. Vladimir is a lot nicer, trying to help Reima but lacking the fangs to really bite into his wrok. All this makes it hard to him to actually go out from Reima's will and kill people. Thus, both are equally ineffective in bringing the fat cats and the clergymen to their knees. The village is filled with bone-headed rednecks seemingly doing nothing but drinking and fighting all day long. A real frustration of not being able to change this craphole into anything no matter how hard one tries shines through. Still the methods of communism are deemed too blunt.

Although the film is hilarious, it overstays its welcome before the end. The characters are too caricature-like to empathize. The ending still doesn't water down the majority of this film. However, the version shown was merely the shorter international version rather than the longer finnish version. That may have a much worse length problem.


If this were a MGS3 villain: The Fury

Director: Antti Peippo. 1979.

Another film where I slept too much to give a proper review. This was a satire of the corporate world of the late 70's, which almost destroys an ordinary worker (Antti Litja), that has learned special skills in a mysterious training period abroad. Many of the satirical films of the 60's and 70's are a hard to follow today - not just in Finland but in general. They style of the time seems to be to have the length of the scenes shrinked to the minimum. The stories themselves can be far-fetched and to branch out to multiple subplots at once. As you might've guessed, I usually prefer films that are able to focus on one thing properly than leave out a dozen half-baked plot threads. The humour in this film seems to fall flat as well, even though the casting is quite good.

Lipton Cockton in the Shadows of Sodoma
Director: Jari Halonen. 1995.

Halonen managed to pull the rug under the viewer for the second time in a row by creating a ponderous dystopian sci-fi film in the vein of Blade Runner and Brazil. Although he didn't really have the money this time, either, it's a wonder he created such an unique film with such a striking visual outlook.

Jorma Tommila stars again, in a role radically different from Back to USSR. He plays private detective Lipton Cockton subtly, keeping his desires and feelings bottled up behind his tough and uncompromising exterior. This is a requirement as the year is 2037 and the various citizens in Vladivotok City don't take kindly to people snooping around. Cockton is trying to figure out why a large number of citizens have spontaneously combusted. The investigation is not easy as the huge corporation Ltd. Productions seems to have something to do with the solution but is not eagre to reveal the truth about its operations.

It is a story of one individual's attempt to find his own identity in a corrupt world which doesn't allow for such luxuries. The threat of being physically destroyed is still only a small price to pay for inner peace with oneself. The basic plot and the pondered questions are modeled after acclaimed sci-fi -classics. but it is as far as the familiar territory goes.

Cockton has to face an incredibly hostile world, even for such a film noir pastiche character. He can't trust even his employers, who seem to be eager to off Cockton if he fails or approaches the mystery from the wrong angle. Cockton's only friend is a rooster he saves from being traded for prostitution. The story as well as the photography give focus to such details as this. The world seems a lot bigger than its characters, even though there are no large overhead shots. The few shots that go beyond the set are created with an innovative use of models. The props look genuine as well and there is even a huge robot bouncer at one point. Halonen utilizes the absurdity of the world he has created in both advancing his story as well as in the dialogue and the film's black humour. Cockton has to go through a lot worse than many of his colleagues in order to find the solution to the mystery and at the same time to his own problems.

The director Halonen has made only two more movies to date - the cult movie Joulubileet (1996) and a biography about the finnish national author The Life of Aleksis Kivi (2002). The latter I saw as a teenager and hated it. A re-evaluation may be due since I clearly didn't understand the acting methods and the possible anarchistic satirical undertones of the film at the time. Halonen himself says he only makes films when he feels like it. His next work will be a version of the Finnish national epic Kalevala. Color me excited.


If this were a MGS3 villain: Col. Volgin - not quite what you'd expect from the scratch, but nevertheless sci-fi themed and strong.

MP – Minä Pelkään
Director: Jari Hyytiäinen. 1982.

Aside from Lipton Cockton, the films I saw from the festival's sci-fi series merely brushed upon the genre. Such was the case also with MP, which is more of a horror film. The film concerns a family of three isolated in their summer cottage. Each of them has to confront their fears during their stay. The fears appear mostly psychologically - yet it's not spelled out what exactly is true and what fiction.

It appears that the mother and father want to shield their young daughter Mari from seeing the horrors of an ongoing war. Yet the military practices nearby and the distant rumbles of cannonfire can be heard to the cottage. The looming fear of war and violence will eventually turn concrete. Late in the evening the parents watch terrible war news from the evening news. Unknown to them, Mari is not sleeping. Looking at the horrified faces of her parents, she comes to a sort of loss of childhood innocence. Each of the family also starts seeing vivid nightmares. A lost soldier in the nearby woods may give them a nightmare while being awake.

The opening scenes seem to belong to a masterpiece. The dialogue is few and a lot is told subtly, with images and small gestures of the main actors. The athmosphere created by shooting quiet nature shots is eerie to say the least. Director Hyytiäinen has taken a page from Tarkovski's book, yet can turn this into his own advantage. The nightmares themselves are shot on grainy black-and-white film. They are visually inventive and not too overwhelmingly surreal. Quite few filmmakers are actually able to make nightmare scenes that feel like actual bad dreams, but Hyytiäinen nails the feeling. The dreams are filled with weird imagery yet feel like they might be true as well, at least until everything suddenly changes. It truly feels like the character's subconscious is trying to process his/her fears.

Yet unfortunatelly the ending fails the film from masterclass. Some (female) fears are brought to life way too banally. In the final minutes Hyytiäinen also hammers home his messages with surprisingly flat footage that seems to rather belong in a film school student's homework. The ending should be a climax in the film's artistic themes, yet it feels like Hyytiäinen ran out of tricks just before the finish line. What began as a subtle film ends up feeling like a pretentious experimental film. A lot of things are ruined by the ending, yet the film is still a highly reccommendable piece of great finnish filmmaking.

★★★ 1/2

If this were a MGS3 villain: The Fear

Director: Pekka Lehto. 1989.

And finally we've come to this. This was long a sort of Holy Grail for me. It hasn't been easy to try to see this film, yet now it paid off in spades. This documentary about theatre director Jussi Parviainen's painful divorce had been banned from public screenings via a court order and even after 15 years, its screening at DocPoint festival this January in Helsinki was stopped by muddy rights issues. Luckily, the producer of Parviainen's next film Yksinteoin 2, MTV3, bought the screening rights a couple of days before the SEF festival screening and thus the audience finally got to see the film legally. I know several other people that have seen the film from a bootleg VHS. Hah, that's nothing compared to seeing this from real film and with anecdotes from Parviainen himself before and after the film. He had not so far-fetched and hilarious stories this time around. He remained humble and seemed to still be in pain by the events even after all this time. Yet he remained as ernest to the audience as he seems to be in the film.

So in case you haven't read finnish gossip magazines from the late 80's the story is the following: Jussi Parviainen had planned to make a documentary with acclaimed director Pekka Lehto, when he found out his then-wife had an affair. Although the facts that this was happening were clear, the wife denied everything and filed for a divorce. This and the fear of losing touch with his children dropped Parviainen into a despair and a frenzy Lehto went on to capture on film.

Parviainen is by no means an angel and no mere victim. The film does depict him as a very contradictory character as he has plenty of bad sides to him. When the movie was filmed, Parviainen slept very little, and drove every day back and forth between Tampere and Helsinki to pick his children from kindergarten on time and to go to work. He goes on threatening his ex-wife and her new lover with violence and admits of having beaten them both before. Yet like many other abusers, he seems deeply sorry about his doings and makes endless phone calls to beg his wife to allow him to see the children. His passive-aggressive behaviour however scares people around him (and for good reason). Parviainen's emotions are simply overwhelming, ranging from true fury to tears and sobs of pain. In the film there is no catharsis or resolution, just Parviainen in front of the camera, going through all the traumatic events.

Yksinteoin is a very rare piece of work. Very few documentaries feel as honest and gripping. Most of the takes in the film last for ages and feature only Parviainen either talking to the camera or to the phone (with the answering voices blurred out). The pain which Parviainen feels as his world is collapsing around him is felt all too crushingly by the viewer. Such a person shouldn't be as identifiable as he's depicted with his warts and all. I suspect that not all of the glory belongs to the incredibly open Parviainen, who uses the rolling camera as a substitute for therapy. Lehto's filmmaking skills may not obviously project to the screen as this feels like Parviainen's film. But the way Lehto has captured the most poignant scenes, dramaturgically fitting, his occasional use of music and the editing all tell that this is a work of a true professional. The end result is a masterpiece, one that will leave a lingering feeling in your gut for days after seeing it.


If this were a MGS3 villain: The Pain

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