Tom of Finland (2017)

Tom of Finland is a likeable but hastily drawn sketch of the Finnish soldier and artist whose work is responsible for many a gay man’s wet dreams.

Tom of FinlandFinland
3*

Director:
Dome Karukoski
Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Lasse Frank

Running time: 115 minutes

Pencil sketches of muscle men, leather uniforms and enormous penises. These works of art, long produced underground before finally making their way to gallery exhibits and then even onto a few of Finland’s stamps, are the creations of Touko Laaksonen. “Tom of Finland”, as he would later be known, came of age during the Second World War and put his fantasies on paper in order to forget about his miserable experiences as a soldier and as a man trapped in an ultra-conservative and very anti-gay society.

Some of the early scenes in Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland take place in Helsinki ahead of the 1952 Olympic Games and show the police clearing out a park that has become a popular cruising spot for the city’s gay community. When they catch men doing the old in-out against a tree trunk or kissing in the shadows of heavy foliage, they gang up to beat the victim with their truncheons until he can no longer offer any resistance. It is a chilling reminder of how backward and intolerant some Western societies were – and not long ago. Finland, where same-sex marriage only became possible in March 2017, had taken until 1971 to decriminalise homosexuality, although Tom of Finland (perhaps purposefully) neglects to tell us this and thus sketches a conservative Finnish society forever threatening to people like Laaksonen, portrayed by Pekka Strang.

Dome Karukoski’s biopic of arguably Finland’s most famous artist snaps from one narrative block to another as it scrambles to cram around four decades of life into two hours while pretending to take its time. The first 10 minutes alone cover four separate periods in Laaksonen’s life, and over time, we return to almost all of them in the same fitful, fragmentary manner.

The scenes have room to breathe, but the transitions between them are abrupt and often leave us scratching our heads about the missing amount of time. In addition, the two hours are rather awkwardly framed by a major leather event that, while it offers a powerful culmination and affirmation of Laaksonen’s life, feels rushed and tacked on without any proper groundwork.

There are very few narrative threads that cut across the entire film, although one of the most important (albeit, regrettably, one of the weakest) involves Laaksonen’s sister, Kaija, who never manages to accept his sexuality. Throughout their lives, she lives in bitter denial that homosexuality even exists. We gather that she wants to ignore the tragedy of her own life as a spinster by focusing on her brother’s life, even as he ends up spending most of it with a loving partner, Veli “Nipa” Mäkinen (played by the gorgeous Lauri Tilkanen).

Unlike in another biopic of a gay artist (Julian Schnabel’s glorious depiction of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in the inimitable Before Night Falls), the society portrayed in Tom of Finland is one of binary oppositions. The only person who does not fall neatly into the “gay = good”/”straight = menacing” categories is the quiet wife of an army captain who tolerates her husband’s meetings with other men. It is a real pity we do not get to see more of her, or of her kind, in this film.

As far as “Tom” himself is concerned, it remains unclear whether he ever feels like he fits in. Certainly, on his first trip to California, in the late 1970s, the warm weather and the men holding hands in public immediately signal a break from the frigid confines of Helsinki, where people still give him a dirty look if he is too intimate with Nipa. Towards the end of his life, Nipa has a persistent cough, and although his death is ultimately ascribed to throat cancer, the film’s ambiguity suggests he was very likely an early victim of the as yet undiagnosed AIDS virus.

Laaksonen, whose graphite sported members the size of baseball bats, also had a thing for leather, but we never get any indication of where this fixation originated. Perhaps it goes back to his early focus on men in uniforms, although we can’t be sure. His muse, a leather-clad biker with a prominent moustache and a police cap, is the imaginary Kake (Niklas Hogner), who becomes a central character in his work. Laaksonen says he is only satisfied with his own work if it makes him hard, but we never see him hot and bothered, even in the company of an imagined Kake, nor, for that matter, do we see anyone else getting horny from his pictures. This is a truly mystifying omission, as the film would have benefitted immensely from showing how Tom of Finland’s works offered pleasure to the gay community at large – or to himself.

Tom of Finland is more a patchwork of moments in the title character’s life than an engaging story of his life, his struggles and his motivations. By the end of the film, we still don’t know much about him, and while his Second World War trauma revisits him from time to time, these flashbacks are too scattered and superficial to add much to our understanding of his emotions. Karukoski’s film is unprovocative and doesn’t dig very deep. And although we get one or two vague notions of the life of a ground-breaking artist, the story leaves us unaffected.

Heart of a Lion (2013)

Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion tells the gripping tale of a Finnish skinhead adapting to life with his girlfriend and her half-black son.

heart-of-a-lionFinland
4*

Director:
Dome Karukoski

Screenwriter:
Aleksi Bardy

Director of Photography:
Henri Blomberg

Running time: 100 minutes

Original title: Leijonasydän

Many viewers may be tired of Second World War films and choose to leave the history in the past. And yet, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the consequences of racism. It is an ideology that, albeit in a slightly different form, remained on the books in the United States in the form of segregation until the mid-1960s, and in South Africa was codified into law shortly after the National Party came to power in 1948.

Neo-Nazis, or skinheads, can be found in most countries in Europe, and their guiding philosophy usually combines ideas of “purity” from Nazism with patriotism for their particular country. The title of Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s Heart of a Lion refers to the animal, found in Africa and Asia, that holds a sword above its head on Finland’s coat of arms and appears as a tattoo on the bodies of many of the country’s skinheads who proclaim their conservative intention to protect the country from change.

The problematic provenance of the symbol is an interesting point of departure for a discussion about the film, which has a skinhead character, the leader of a small pride of like-minded tattooed individuals, fall in love with Sari (Laura Birn), a woman whose son is half-black. This neo-Nazi is called Teppo (Peter Franzén), but having seen his previous love life crumble because of his commitment to defending the fatherland against imposters (anyone who doesn’t look like his idea of a true Finn), and perhaps also because of the great sex with Sari, he is willing to look the other way when his new love breaks the news to him that her son is called Rhamadhani (Yusufa Sidibeh).

Despite what we may be expecting, the film is filled with examples of love, all with neo-Nazi leader Teppo at the nexus, as his relationships – sometimes tender, sometimes fraught with challenges – with Sari, Rhamadhani and his own brother, Harri (Jasper Pääkkönen), inject positive feelings into a storyline that could easily have settled for cheap thrills and violence.

Not that Heart of a Lion lacks violence or aggressive characters, but the overarching idea seems to be reconciliation rather than destruction, and of course it helps our capacity for empathy when Teppo seems to share this desire.

But Karukoski has to step very carefully among the landmines of empathy in a film dealing with this subject matter, as it would be entirely inappropriate to care too much about Teppo or his brash younger brother. Teppo may be conflicted, and Harri may be torn between affection for Teppo and a need to hold onto the seeming security provided by his band of macho neo-Nazis, but although Teppo comes to accept Rhamadhani, he continues to show an affinity for an avowed kind of pro-Finnish fascism for a large part of the film.

Karukoski and lead actor Franzén approach the character of Teppo with extreme circumspection towards his credible development, and their success fuels the viewer’s appreciation of the storytelling here. Teppo is certainly a multifaceted character, but Harri shows signs of even greater complexity: He is an upstart and a provocateur, but when push comes to shove, he protects his brother, even when their ideas about the races are no longer alike. It is unfortunate that the other skinheads are much less well-rounded, as they mostly serve the purpose of a foil to the two brothers’ journey towards a relative liberation from the Nazist ideals.

One particularly puzzling detail is why the skinheads write their graffiti in English, a language that certainly is not part of the proud Finnish traditions they pretend to espouse and protect. In one scene, director of photography Henri Blomberg’s camera even goes in for a closeup on the back of one of the skinheads’ skulls to let us better see the tattoo that reads “White Power”. This English term suggests these Finnish troublemakers see themselves as an extension of the subculture that includes far-right extremists in the English-speaking world. However, none of this is ever discussed, making our comprehension of the way they see themselves rather problematic.

The story itself is very involving, although, oddly, Sari disappears for long stretches of time, apparently without being visited by her boyfriend or her son while she is receiving care at the hospital. It also contains several comical moments that counterbalance the inherent drama. Although Blomberg never shows off with his camera, there is one scene, shot late at night in a single take during a rampage on a few Gypsies, and the violence contained in that unedited bubble of a moment is upsetting and clearly communicated with Karukoski’s choice of shot.

Heart of a Lion is a strong, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable film about love, pride and prejudice, and as relevant as ever.

Viewed at the Festroia International Film Festival 2014

The Good Son (2011)

A Scandinavian chamber film that is both a thrilling and (gut-wrenchingly) chilling domestic drama.

good-son-hyva-poikaFinland
3.5*

Director:
Zaida Bergroth

Screenwriters:
Jan Forsström

Zaida Bergroth
Director of Photography:
Anu Keränen

Running time: 90 minutes

Original title: Hyvä poika

The Finnish The Good Son (Hyvä poika) is a typically Scandinavian affair, its characters and their borderline behaviour not unlike those found in many of Lars von Trier’s films. The story is told in small scenes consisting of very believable actions and reactions, though these are often difficult to look at because of a feeling that evil, at worst, or malice at best, is always just around the corner.

The film’s second scene very effectively sketches the main character of Ilmari, the lanky teenage boy who is always by the side of his actress-mother, Leila: When the eye of a stranger at a café lingers too long on Leila, she cuts down the poor man with a histrionic outburst. When she leaves, Ilmari sits down opposite the man and fidgets approvingly with the man’s mobile phone before dumping it in a soft drink.

The Good Son takes place almost exclusively at the family’s cottage in the middle of the summer in central Finland, where deepest night looks like twilight. But don’t let the illuminated wilderness fool you: Despite the light outside, Ilmari’s protective presence is darker than strangers could know, and when anyone challenges his mother or comes between the two of them, he lashes out in ways that are as cruel as they are easy.

The film comprises several very small and seemingly arbitrarily added moments that in retrospect allow us to see how unhinged many of its characters are, and yet the screenplay doesn’t seem to go for the jugular, instead having plenty of opportunities for the characters to be comforted by outside forces.

 

One of these forces is a writer, Aimo, still grieving the loss of his wife who tragically drowned a few years earlier. He is drawn to Leila even as her son is getting ready to silently declare war on this impostor whose presence as the only adult male in the household, Ilmari’s father having left years earlier, he sees as a threat to family unity.

At the same time, Ilmari’s aggression, alternately active and passive, is counterbalanced by his innocent young brother, Unto, who spends his days lazing in the forest around the isolated cottage, using his camcorder to record the lives of small insects. Compared with the unit of Ilmari and Leila, who decide to use the fireplace despite the birds nesting inside, Unto clearly serves as an entry point and an anchor for the viewer’s experience in this small but brutal world of cascading emotions.

While these emotions often seem inconsequential, they slowly paint a picture of a family in crisis. Ilmari, in particular, is affected by a series of external factors that, while they certainly don’t excuse his behaviour, provide a good sense of a young man in great need of help, not unlike his mother, whose petulance and pigheadedness is visible in his own actions, as well.

Shot with handheld cameras and producing a very real sense of dread, The Good Son is clearly reminiscent of the Dogme 95 filmmakers, but director Zaida Bergroth’s product is much cleaner, with crisp, sunlit images that make great use of the rural Finnish landscape, and sound design that is intended to work against our expectations.

Despite its intensity, the film often jumps between storylines and not all the characters are given a particularly memorable character arc, yet even though we know so little about the characters, the film can affect the viewer profoundly – the result of very finely managed performances and motivations that seem as human as they seem monstrous.

In creating Ilmari, the acting of Samuli Niittymäki, in particular, is notable for its representation of a young man who seems confident and determined yet has no clear idea what he wants to do with his life except be an enemy of anyone outside the family circle. He is a wrecking ball that hits us in the stomach many times during the film, because he seems weak and almost pathetic until he decides to wreak havoc.