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Director spotlight: Finland

2018.09.15 15:59 arrow-s Director spotlight: Finland

Recently, a thread was started and deleted about the top directors of different countries. If nothing else, the thread showed a demand for showcasing the most accomplished directors in each country. That's why I decided to write an introduction to the top directors of my home country. Hopefully this will inspire others to do the same, because I would love to read about other countries too in the future.
Director spotlight: Finland
Traditionally, compared to the other Northern European countries, Finland has never been a powerhouse in internationally recognized cinema. In the mainstream, the most recognized Finnish director remains Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2 etc) which says a lot. Finland is a very small and isolated market, and therefore the film industry is very much dependent on public funding and subventions, leaving little room for artistic growth. However, despite this, Finland has been able to produce one international star director, Aki Kaurismäki. Unlike in Denmark for example, this hasn't unfortunately created a following of a next generation of directors. A few promising names introduced below will hopefully change this soon!
I decided to focus on active directors, picking a few of the most interesting auteurs in my own subjective opinion. Some of the popular directors I decided to leave out include Aku Louhimies, Lauri Törhönen, Olli Saarela and Markku Pölönen.
Star directors
Aki Kaurismäki
Kaurismäki is a Berlinale darling with an occasional Cannes visit, including a Grand Prix for The Man without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002). He has an immediately recognizable visual style: minimalist, austere set design stemming from the brutal landscapes of the post-war Finland. His sets are often intentionally anachronistic: for example in his latest film The Other Side of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen, 2017), supposedly set in the European refugee crisis of 2015, we see government employees use dated office tools from the 1970s. His dialogue and humor are characteristically deadpan (even more so than that of Yorgos Lanthimos), delivered by his actors with minimal facial expression, often while smoking or drinking. Camera rarely if ever moves, and editing is conservative. Another important factor to Kaurismäki's style is the music, ranging from typical Finnish makeshift instrumental rock music (called "rautalanka") to tango. The main feelings visually conveyed by Kaurismäki are often melancholy and despair.
Despite his toolbox looking sinister and depressing on the surface, Kaurismäki is always able to create films with exceptional humanism and hope. In fact, he is one of the most humanistic active directors I can think of. His subject matters are without exception focused on the people at the margins of our society: homelessness, poverty or more recently, refugees. Kaurismäki looks at their suffering with extraordinary altruism and empathy, showing conflicts being resolved by kindness rather than violence. His films are not interested in plot, but in the endurance of these people in constant distress.
Kaurismäki himself has listed R. W. Fassbinder and Luis Buñuel as his main influences. Especially the influence of Fassbinder can be seen in the simple and gloomy set designs. As an often-mentioned anecdote, Kaurismäki is still using a camera he once bought from Ingmar Bergman. In a recent interview he was quoted saying, in his typical deadpan style, "Bergman used the camera in two films, I have now shot 18 of them with it. When can we start calling it my camera instead of his?".
Kaurismäki recently announced his retirement from filmmaking, but I have hope of him being back behind the camera sooner or later. After all, it's his third retirement announcement already and he has always come back.
For newcomers, to get into his filmography I would recommend the following starting points: The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö, 1990), The Man without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002), Le Havre (2011)
Established directors
Klaus Härö
Härö is a well established director domestically, who is still waiting for his real international breakthrough. His films are often very emotional historical dramas, set against the backdrops of some of the most painful scars in the history of Finland, Sweden or Estonia. For example, his film The New Man (Den nya människan, 2007) tells the story of a young girl in the 1950s Sweden, where special needs children faced compulsory sterilization based on eugenic reasons. His most successful film is The Fencer (Miekkailija, 2015), set in Estonia under Soviet occupation, earning him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
His best films, in my opinion, are the tearjerkers Mother of Mine (Äideistä parhain, 2005) and Elina: As If I Wasn't There (Elina - Som om jag inte fanns, 2002). The former deals with the despair of a Finnish mother during the World War II, who has to send her son to Sweden to be raised by a substitute mother in safety, and the sense of abandonement of her son. The latter tells the story of a Finnish-speaking girl in the 1950s Sweden, facing discrimination after losing her father to tuberculosis.
Härö's films are interesting and carry an emotional punch, but so far lack an ability to tell an universally compelling and timeless story. With Letters to Father Jacob (Postia pappi Jaakobille, 2009), Härö tackled a Bresson-esque project about a blind pastor and a pardoned convict, but didn't manage to find the theological or philosophical insight to raise the film to the international stage. So far his films, although good, have not been able to take the next step, but I think he has the potential to make it in the future.
Dome Karukoski
Karukoski is a more mainstream director with a good sense of pop culture and the current zeitgeist. He is currently close to an international breakthrough (currently filming a J.R.R. Tolkien biopic in England for Fox Searchlight), but it remains to be seen if he's able to make the cut. In Finland, however, he's a household name with several major hits under his belt. To me, he has been a hit-or-miss director with a couple of noteworthy films.
His best film, in my opinion, is his last. Tom of Finland (2017) tells the story of the titular artist. Growing up in an environment hostile to homosexuals, the film follows his life in a straightforward fashion towards becoming the iconic symbol of homoerotic fetish art and gay culture in the 1970s United States. Although the film has its shortcomings (hello, makeup department), Karukoski manages to tell a compelling story while creating fitting visual homage to the artist himself.
Other noteworthy films of his include The Home of Dark Butterflies (Tummien perhosten koti, 2008), a powerful drama set in an abusive foster home for boys, and Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankarit, 2010), a light-hearted and entertaining comedy about a man trying to please his girlfriend who wants a new digital converter box for her TV.
Rising directors
Juho Kuosmanen
Kuosmanen broke through in Cannes in 2016 with his second feature The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies, 2016). He went home with the Un Certain Regard award and later received high praise across the Atlantic from the likes of Barry Jenkins and Sean Baker. The brilliant, unconventional boxing comedy that is completely uninterested in the sport of boxing tells the true story of a Finnish featherweight boxer who is set to fight for the world title. Empire described it as by "as if Aki Kaurismäki remade Raging Bull" and I think this hits the nail on the head. The humanism and downplayed emotions reminded me of Kaurismäki while being something completely original. In addition, the crisp black-and-white photography is alone a reason to watch this film, reminding me of nouvelle vague films at their best. If Kuosmanen is able to keep it up, he will be the next Finnish star director.
Selma Vilhunen
Vilhunen got famous in Finland after winning the Academy Award with her short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? (Pitääkö mun kaikki hoitaa?, 2012). I haven't seen any of her films yet, but I'm looking forward to the new film Stupid Young Heart (Hölmö nuori sydän, 2018) which just premiered at TIFF to positive reviews.
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