His Man without a Past scored a hat trick of prizes at Cannes, but Finland’s most famous filmmaker, AKI KAURISMAKI is anything but an unknown. Words: Tom Dawson
I last year's Cannes Film Festival. Finland‘s
most famous filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki
notched up three major prizes for The Man without a Past. as well as receiving the unofficial ‘Palm Dog' award for best canine performance (by Kaurismiiki‘s own pet. Tahti). Many critics on the Croisette felt that the film should have also won the top prize. the Palme d‘Or (which instead went to Roman Polanski's decent. if conventional. The Pianist). because once again the fortysomething Kaurismaki pulled off the feat of making a film that was simultaneously lugubrious and life-affirming. all in his own inimitable style.
Part amnesiac mystery. part rock 'n'roll musical. part blue-collar love story. The Man without a Past concerns a steel welder (played by Markku Peltola) who's viciously mugged upon arriving in Helsinki and subsequently wakes up in hospital with no memory of his name or identity. Forced to rebuild his life from scratch. he takes refuge with a community of dockside squatters. and finds an unexpected soulmate in a Salvation Army officer (Kati Outinen).
All the correct ingredients of Kaurismaki's most tender work are to be found in The Man lt'flliUll! a Past: deadpan humour. appealingly poker-faced performances. the presence of his regular actors (not just Peltola and Outinen. but also Sakari Kuosmanen as a corrupt security guard). the warmly-coloured compositions of director of photography Timo Salminen and compassion towards downtrodden characters. As with another of his best films. Drifting Clouds. Kaurismaki demonstrates with a pleasingly delicate touch how socio-economic factors affect ordinary lives and relationships. Yet The Man without a Past shouldn‘t be seen as a 'realistic‘ portrait of contemporary Finland. because as the filmmaker once said: ‘Finland is not at all like it is in my films . . .
20 THE LIST 16—30 Jan 2003
Leningrad Cowboys Go America is, according to its laconic creator, ‘shit’
my films are quite timeless. I want them to work anywhere.‘
Kaurismiiki began making films in the early 1980s. initially collaborating with his brother Mika. before embarking on his debut. an adaptation of Crime and Ptmishntent. Kaurismaki works quickly — he's now made fifteen features plus several documentaries and short films and he also runs a distribution and production company — but it wasn't until his fifth film. Ariel (1988). that British audiences caught up with his distinctive cinematic vision. One of his best known offerings. Leningrad Cowboys Go America. a farcical account of a hapless rock group on tour which received the enthusiastic backing of Jonathan Ross in his cult- film fan days. is according to its laconic creator. ‘shit'. and 'the worst film in the history of cinema. unless you count Sylvester Stallone’s films.‘
However. it‘s hard to know precisely how seriously one should take Kaurismaki's statements. In interviews he comes across as something of a taciturn. boozy joker. telling one journalist that the reason he prefers static shots is that it means you don't have to move the camera (yeah. so‘.’). while another critic was informed by Kaurismaki that the director wanted to shoot a western literally on the moon (oh. really‘P).
In other ways Kaurismaki is a man of real integrity. When the Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami was refused an American visa for the New York Film Festival. Kaurismaki withdrew his own participation from the event. reckoning ‘if the present government don‘t want an Iranian. they will hardly have room for a Finn‘. Of course. there was still room for an ironic joke: ‘We don't even have any oil.‘ he added.
The good news is that The Man without a Past has been a box-office success in Finland. and has been picked up by a major American distributor. Sony Pictures Classics. Here‘s hoping that this droll fable will allow. to quote from Kaurismiiki himself. ‘viewers to leave the cinema happier than when they went in‘. Such modest claims for a man with so tnuch past history.
Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 24 Jan; GFT, Glasgow from Fri 7 Feb. See review, page 21.
Lights, camera, action . . .
RIDING ON THE CREST OF A wave of critical praise for Latin American cinema. the Brazilian drug dealer thriller City of God crashes into Scotland and may well prove to be the film of 2003. And riding on the crest of the crest of that wave. comes Oi Sambal. a Brazilian film season running at the Glasgow Film Theatre 17—29 January and then Edinburgh's Filmhouse from 21 February. (City of God is Currently screening at Edinburgh's Cameo and UGC cinemas as well as the GFT.)
The ‘quite brilliant’ Maids
The seven features (accompanied by four short films) in the season include: Madame Sata. a biopic ab0ut the bandit. transvestite and cabaret performer; To the Left of the Father, a subversive reworking of the parable of the prodigal son; Through the Window, a film noir from one of Brazil‘s most promismg female directors; Brainstorm. an indictment of the country's archaic mental health system: News from a Personal War. a dOCumentary ab0ut life in the kind of drug-ridden shanty town depicted in City of God: Little Prince '3 Flap Against the Wicked Soa/s. a music dOCumentary: and Maids. a comic drama about some of the three million Brazilian women who work as domestic servants that Rough cuts caught at the Edinburgh international Film Festival a few years back and subsequently dubbed otiite brilliant'. EDINBURGH COMPANY Futurist Cinema launches Moving Conversations, 3 series of celebrity discussions employing film clips alongside interviews (possibly in the style of Mark Cousins’ Scene by Scene events for the BBC). The first Conversation, taking place at the National Museum of Scotland of 17 January, brings together four computer games industry professionals in an event entitled Games on Film, Film on Games.