God, Finland is a bleak and miserable place. That at least is often the initial impression given by the films of Aki Kaurismäki, and perhaps one of the reasons why his films aren’t so well accepted in his homeland. Look beneath the surface of both the grim locations and the miserable, inarticulate, and socially deprived people who populate the poky little apartments, cheap restaurants and rundown hotels in his films however and there is something honest, truthful, heartfelt, tragic but deeply touching about the simplicity of their lives, their concise, inexpressive means of interaction, their unlimited ambitions and their inability to achieve them.
That sense of simplicity and innocence is reflected in the austerity of Kaurismäki’s films, which hark back to the classic period of Hollywood cinema – simple stories of rugged guys down on their luck and beautiful dames who have taken a few knocks themselves throwing their lot in together, leaving the troubles of the world behind to try to start a new life. Except, there’s something about this setup that doesn’t quite translate or sit well with the Finnish character, temperate, appearance or climate. Kaurismäki’s films thrive on this contradiction, this gulf between the illusion and the reality – and the comedy arises naturally out of that space in-between. Rock ‘n’ Roll fits into this space also, and music and song lyrics consequently play a major part in helping to bridge the gap.
The three films included in Artificial Eye’s The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 1 form a loose trilogy known as the “Workers Trilogy”, but they firmly establish themes and situations that would become familiar in much of the director’s later work. Each feature a lonely underdog unable to find fulfilment in their mundane, low-paid job – a binman, a miner and a factory worker - who nevertheless has dreams of a better life, one that they have seen in the movies or heard in songs. The results inevitably are often humorous and sometimes tragic, but Kaurismäki never mocks the characters’ predicament or their romantic illusions. With an economy of expression that is close to genius, Kaurismäki taps into feelings and emotions with unerring precision, with such sincerity that one can't help but believe that, in the words of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, dreams really can come true.
Shadows In Paradise (1986)
The title alone of Kaurismäki’s 1986 film is deliciously evocative of everything that the director’s films are about, redolent with a sense of irony, yet sincerity and of impossible dreams not quite extinguished by the impoverished existence that the characters lead and the misfortunes that beset them.
Dragging things down to their basest level right from the start, Shadows In Paradise opens with refuse collectors going about their early morning collection on a cold, damp, miserable morning, sitting glumly over an unappetising fried breakfast in a cheap, grimy restaurant and sharing a cigarette and vodka break. Even these little men have ambitions however. Having worked for 25 years as a binman, one of Nikander’s co-workers suggests that it is time to start up his own company and he wants Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) to be the foreman. Initially he intends to start out with five trucks, but “the sky’s the limit”. Sadly however, fate intervenes and his colleague dies before he can achieve these wild and crazy dreams, plunging Nikander into a deep depression. Finding himself in a police cell after a drunken rampage on the town, Nikander meets Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen) and tells the unemployed man he knows where there is a job going.
All this happens within the first 15 minutes of the film. Kaurismäki and his characters are not ones to waste time on pleasantries – everything is dry, laconic and to the point. Of course, there’s a woman involved in all this too. There always is where Kaurismäki’s little men have impossible dreams. Ilona (Kati Outinen) works on a supermarket checkout, but is looking for more from life than the trip to the bingo hall that Nikander proposes on their first date, dreaming of visiting Florida. Unfairly fired from her job however, Ilona makes off with the store’s cashbox, hoping that she and Nikander can find a new life together. But life inevitably throws obstacles in their way, casting those shadows in paradise. Not major obstacles, but then this is Helsinki and Nikander and Ilona are not exactly Bogart and Bacall. Clearly no-one has told Aki Kaurismäki that, because he plays it as if it was a life and death scene out of Key Largo or The Big Sleep and the result is hilarious, but real and touching.
The opening of Ariel strikes a familiar chord. A loser in a no-hope town, Kasurinen (Turo Pajala) and his colleagues find themselves without work when the mine closes down in their small town. An elder colleague warns him against the dangers ahead – misery, alcoholism, suicide – and, before he himself goes to blow his own brains out, gives Kasurinen the keys to his Cadillac convertible to go and find a new life elsewhere.
Kasurinen takes out all his savings and heads out on the highway. The glamorous car might represent his dream of escape and a better life - the car just making it out of a dilapidated garage before it falls apart - but it’s a flawed one with a convertible roof that won’t rise and faulty windscreen wipers. Life and invariably a couple of thugs moreover conspire to do their worst. Kasurinen may not lose his memory from a blow to the head, but loses his cash and ends up living in a mission, taking what work he can get at the docks in Helsinki.
With his car though, he is still sufficiently impressive enough to charm a traffic warden, Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto), into giving up her job and throwing her lot in with him. She and her son stick by Kasurinen as events take a turn for the worse. Forced to give up his car and by extension his dreams, sentenced unjustly to a term in prison, Kasurinen finds an unlikely ally in cell-mate Mikkonen (Matti Pellonpää). Inspired by Bogart in High Sierra, the two men seek to regain the little esteem and piece of life that have been taken from them.
From an outline description it can be difficult to convey the impact that such a simple, familiar storyline can achieve, or define the magic that director can work on it in its short running time, but even among Kaurismäki films, Ariel is something special. In addition to a script sparkling with witty dialogue, delivered in the usual deadpan manner, there is a remarkable amount of attention given over to the look of the film to convey poignancy and a sense of visual humour. It may look deceptively drab, but the counterpoint of the dockyard and prison locations only highlight the romanticism of the characters’ dreams that are in complete contrast to the reality of their circumstances. Simple, efficient and straight to the point, with engaging characters and an eventful storyline, this gives rise to many delightful moments and sequences that, in contrast to the perceived misery on the screen, are actually full of wonder for the little, magical moments that make life worth the struggle.
The Match Factory Girl (1990)
If it doesn’t overtly reference the Hans Christian Anderson story its title evokes, The Match Factory girl certainly matches the fairytale in its depiction of the misery of life for those in menial work with no realistic prospect for escape from the drudgery of their life. This doesn’t deter Iris the Match Factory Girl (Kati Outinen) who, like the typical Kaurismäkian everyman, uncomplainingly gets on with her life while dreaming of better things and refusing to submit to the unfair hand life has dealt her.
And it’s not a pleasant existence. The monotony of her work at the factory making matches is at least preferable to Iris’s home life and personal circumstances, living with her parents in rundown accommodation offered to factory employees where she is treated as an unpaid servant - or worse, since all her mother and father take all the wages she earns at the factory for the upkeep of the household. Ever the wallflower at the local dancehall, Iris nevertheless has her dreams, reads her Mills & Boon romances on the bus and buys herself a new dress. Her dreams appear to come true when she meets a rich, handsome man and wakes up the next morning in his beautiful apartment. But there are storm clouds ahead and her residence in paradise is short-lived.
The third part of Kaurismäki’s loosely themed ‘Worker’s Trilogy’ again opens quite appropriately in a factory – a match factory evidently - where human interaction has been reduced to the barest minimum. So relentlessly depicted is this situation that it resembles nothing less than The Seventh Continent and 71 Fragments Of A Chronology Of Chance parts of Michael Haneke’s Glaciation Trilogy (both coincidentally made around the same time), where humanity has been reduced to mechanical, impersonal functions and fed a daily diet of violence and unrest on the television. Like Haneke’s central figures, the footage of the horror and brutal oppression of Tiananmen Square, and more importantly one moment of foolhardy resistance, here strike a chord with the poor young woman, and lead her to strike out against the injustice of life.
With a lack of dialogue that would almost qualify it as a silent movie, Kaurismäki nevertheless shows what he can do with material like this, with minimal expression and condensing it down to under 70 minutes. Inevitably music – always an important presence in Kaurismäki films – becomes an even more powerful presence here, the songs evoking a dreamland paradise that remains out of reach, and dreams that are cruelly shattered. Rather than accept or bemoan her lot however, Iris is prepared to resist and grab the only option open to her and that is to direct her own fate, even if it must necessarily be a tragic one.
The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 1 is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. It contains three films, each presented on a single-layer DVD-5 disc - Shadows in Paradise (1986), Ariel (1988) and The Match Factory Girl (1990). The DVDs are in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
The transfers on each of the releases are more or less identical in quality. The films are all relatively short and barebones enough for them to be presented without too much problem on single-layer discs. There may be a slight flicker of compression artefacts, but the anamorphically enhanced progressive image on each of the titles is stable and relatively clean, with only a few minor marks occasionally visible. Colours tend towards the warm side and contrast is strong with some grain visible in scenes, giving the impression that the transfers have been sourced from theatrical prints, though I only noticed reel-change marks on Ariel. All the films look well however, often with excellent detail and colour.
Each of the films contain the original Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. Dialogue, sounds and music are all relatively clear, with good stereo separation, if they can sound a little bright and a bit on the harsh side.
English subtitles are provided for all films in a clear white font and are removable.
Surprisingly, there are no extra features on any of the three discs – not even filmographies. With there being plenty of Kaurismäki short films available that are unlikely to see light on any set of their own, some effort to make them available would have been appreciated. Sadly, that opportunity appears to have been missed here.
Aki Kaurismäki may be an acquired taste for some. Although resolutely direct and quite simple in their premise and execution, the humour in his films and the underlying warmth of his characters might not be readily apparent beneath their deadpan, dry, miserable exterior. Although I’d heartily recommend it to anyone, The Aki Kaurismäki Collection Volume 1 might not be the best starting point for anyone new to the director’s work. If however you have been fortunate to experience a Kaurismäki film before, then chances are you’ll have been waiting a long time for these early films to be made available in the UK. Although Artificial Eye’s release is disappointingly basic, the films themselves don’t disappoint.