Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) Dir: Jalmari Helander. Language: Finnish, English. Unrated: Language, violence, nudity
This film is set to open Dec.3rd (NY) and Dec.10th (LA) in the U.S. in selected theaters.
Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, based on a series of his short films, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale takes place on the eve of Christmas in northern Finland , Korvatunturi mountains, where an archeological dig may have unearthed the real Santa Claus. However, this may not be the plump, white-bearded Santa Claus most are familiar with, but the much meaner creature from Finnish folklore. Young Pietari and his father Rauno, a reindeer hunter/butcher by trade, capture the old man/creature and attempt to sell him to the company sponsoring the dig. Meanwhile, all the local children begin to mysteriously disappear while Santa’s “elves” will stop at nothing to free their fearless leader from captivity.
From the beginning, I really liked the mood of this film. Admittedly, I haven’t seen any of the short films that Helander had made before this. Throughout this film, there’s a sense of tension and mystery, but with good amount of dry humor thrown in. Ever since the dig, strange things begin to happen in the small town–electrical objects are stolen and children have gone missing. I really liked how the film never reveals things right away, but allows the story progressively present itself. While most of the film is in Finnish, there are occasional English speakers in the film, who play their parts with a good amount of gusto.
The film works similarly to a horror film, with well-timed pacing and build-up, and finally, perhaps the eventual uncovering of the mysterious, impending horror. With harsh language, dark humor, some gore, frontal nudity (of old men), and some creepy moments, it’s not for little children (Think Pan’s Labyrinth). Director Jalmari Helander confidently balances the horror and the humor of this tale expertly. The horror elements, which are presented mostly tongue-in-cheek, are there, but it’s closer to a thriller, and the humor is sharp. I’m reminded of Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. Similarly, this film is kind of like a monster movie, but it isn’t really about the monster-it’s about the characters and their relationships with each other. The story unfolds in a diabolically clever way, which works in conjunction with its occasionally labored build-up.
A good amount of the film’s focus is on the relationship between Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), who operates a bankrupted reindeer slaughterhouse. Rauno, who appears to be a widower, tends to be very protective of Pietari and often keeps many things to himself. Onni Tommila plays the young Pietari with much confidence, allowing us to see this strange world from his point of view. Jorma Tommila is excellent as the loving father, played with a realistic blend of emotion, restraint, and subtlety.
The icy, white, wintery locale of this film is quite gorgeous and one can tell that there is a good amount of production value involved, without being glossy or fake. There’s good attention to small details that keeps things real. The orange lights, the rich, saturated colors of reds and blues play off and contrast with the snow marvelously. And, firey explosions do indeed look great in the snow. The film’s pumping soundtrack brings good amount of tension and weight, throwing a hint of that Danny Elfman/Tim Burton-like fantasy atmosphere. Still, the style of the film is mostly realistic, even if surreal things do happen, and is not as aesthetically gothic as, let’s say, a Burton film.
While the thematic elements of the film aren’t anything new, I loved the film’s original take on the Santa story. It doesn’t simply feel like a simple “wouldn’t it be cool if…” gimmick, but there’s weight to the story. It isn’t trying to redefine something, but it is simply telling a story which happens to be quite strange. It is strange, indeed….but original.
My Rating:*** ½ of ****