From La La Land to the Finnish Wilderness

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Kuusamo. Hanna movie was filmed here. Photo: North Finland Film Commission / Lotta Salonen.

Not too long ago I visited my native country Finland with my colleagues. The purpose of this trip was for cultural exchange – especially within the movie business. Our movie business is a blooming one. It’s colorful and rich. Everyone is enthusiastic. Well, that is probably an exaggeration because pessimism is second nature for a Finn. But hopefully you get my point. It is a very exciting time for the Finnish movie industry.

So I spent time in Helsinki, Kuusamo and Oulu with the Hollywood delegation. I call it Hollywood delegation because it wasn’t only us, five Hollywood Foreign Press Association members but also other influential people from the La La Land (yes, there is also a movie with that name but I refer to it as Hollywood).

Our (HFPA) first official visit was at the Angry Birds headquarters in Espoo, about a 20 minute drive from Helsinki. Luckily the visit was far from angry. Red or his fellow birdies didn’t stone us – or bird us. Well, if you saw the Angry Birds movie you know what I am talking about. The happy fellows at Rovio (the name of the company who created Angry Birds) in their new and bright office are working with the second installment. Can’t wait to see if Red will stay angry.

From a colorful visit at Rovio we jumped in to a black and white world of lightweight boxer Olli Mäki. Yes, this is the Finnish movie everybody praises. First it won Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes Film Festival. Then the Hollywood Reporter listed it as one of the forerunners for the best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. Then it won the Zurich Film Festival and now Varity is listing it as one of the best foreign movies of the year. That is awesome!

In Finnish the movie is called Hymyilevä mies. The direct translation would be a smiling man, but the official English title is The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. It is a mouthful but people seem to remember that. When I recently talked about the movie with my journalist friend I tried to shorten the name and only said Olli Mäki. My poor friend stared at me and he didn’t understand what I am talking about. Then I started the name from the beginning, The Happiest Day … I didn’t need to say more, because then he immediately said, yes, yes, I’ve heard the movie is good. Yes it is. It is directed by a first time feature director Juho Kuosmanen and tells Olli Mäki’s story before a big championship lightweight boxing match in the early 1960s. In the end you will find out Olli’s definition for happiness. It might surprise you.

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With The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki’s director Juho Kuosmanen. Photo: Kirpi.

Combat sport changed to family drama at the Finnish Film Affair’s opening gala movie. Director Antti Jokinen’s Flowers of Evil is a very topical story about a multicultural and dysfunctional low income family. Even though Finland is listed as one of the best countries in the world, it can be hard to grow up in a Nordic welfare country, especially in a rough neighborhood like eastern Helsinki.

Young leading actor Viljami Nojonen did a great job, but I didn’t have a chance to talk with him because he is under age and couldn’t attend the opening night party. But there I saw a lovely Krista Kosonen – Hello Hollywood, keep an eye on her. She is funny, nice and a brilliant actor. Some members from our group had the pleasure to meet her last year when we visited Finland. Back then she was the lead in Midwife, a movie about the Lapland war. Now she has a small role in Flowers of Evil. But there is nothing evil about her – at least not to my knowledge.

Another strong candidate to Hollywood is 13-year-old Linnea Skog. She charmed the Toronto Film Festival with her role in the drama Little Wing. The movie won Alice Nella Città prize at Rome Film Festival. It is a warm story about a teen who wants to figure out who her dad is. No doubt that the film’s director Selma Vilhunen is a talented story teller. She got the Oscar nomination for her short Do I Always Have to Take Care of Everything and is a member of the Academy. I am sure she will have a bright future.

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With Little Wing’s director Selma Vilhunen and leading ladies Linnea Skog and Paula Vesala. Photo: Camilla O’Connor.

The Finnish Film Affair’s The Work in Progress forum gave a sneak peek for next year’s premiers. There is more and more good Finnish movies in the pipeline, like Aku Louhimies’ World War II drama The Unknown Soldier and Dome Karukoski’s Tom of Finland, a story of the iconic gay artist’s, Touko Laaksonen, life after the Second World War. That same evening the Hollywood Foreign Press Association co-hosted a party with the Finnish Film Affair and the Lapland, north, west and southeast regional film commissions. It took place in Löyly (means a heat in a sauna). Löyly is co-owned by actor Jasper Pääkkönen. But he wasn’t around because he is shooting the new season for the TV show Vikings with another Finnish actor Peter Franzén. But many other industry people were there. The highlight of the evening was The Hollywood Reporter award columnist Scott Feinberg’s announcement of the two joint winners of the Works in Progress Best Pitch award; directors J-P Passi and Jukka Kärkkainen for their documentary film Post Punk Disorder, and Karukoski for the feature film Tom of Finland. (Read more about event from Serge Rakhlin’s article: http://www.goldenglobes.com/articles/its-finnish-affair-exploring-finlands-cinema-helsinki-festival)

United States is known for its southern hospitality, Finland more for its northern hospitality. In Kuusamo, just below the Arctic Circle and close to the Russian border, while other members of the Hollywood delegation went to pet reindeers a small group of us went rafting in the Finnish wilderness. We saw reindeers eating grass while our raft floated dowb the first rapid. It was amazing.

I got wet with ice cold water midway. Luckily our host had an extra overall. I put that on and felt warm again. I was able to keep that all evening with me on my way to Oivangin Lomakartano, a vacation estate where we spent the night. I left it the next day at The Predator Center in Kuusamo, where we visited. There we saw the local film star Juuso amongst other bears. Never will I forget these huge predators licking honey from Sulo’s (the owner) index finger like a kids lollipops.

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Sulo and Juuso. Lear more about them from website: http://www.kuusamon-suurpetokeskus.fi Kuva: NFFC / Lotta Salonen.

In Oulu we met local filmmakers: Alpakka Media’s Niina Grönholm (Pearl’s World), OUTO’s Jussi Saarela and Tero Takalo (Hullabalooba and Finnish Nightmares), Flatlight Creative House’s Miikka Niemi (New Run and TV series Metsien kätkemä), Vaski Filmi’s Janne Niskala (Hockey Dreams and Sparroabban – me and my little sister), Rapid River’s Tauno Kohonen (Light in the Wilderness) and Silvamysterium’s Visa Koiso Kanttila (Starboys).

My country is full of crazy ideas, like Wife-carrying and Air guitar contests. So it fit the picture perfectly that our trip ended with strangers screaming at us. A local Men’s Choir Shouters is well known in Finland. They are shouting patriotic marches and children’s songs.

What a wonderful experience this was. Thank you all!

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Our gang. Photo: NFFC / Lotta Salonen.