It is one month before Christmas day In the wintery heart of Lapland, and weird doings are afoot: an international mining concern, backed by a dwarfish prospector called Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen), believes it has uncovered a ‘sacred’ burial ground in the mountains: the final resting place of an evil entity who has haunted Norse legend since time immemorial. For a vast ice tomb buried 486 meters inside a snow-capped fell on the Russian border has been uncovered; the workmen on the project have been instructed strictly to abide by some very odd safety regulations, lest they stir the wrath of this legendary being: 'no cursing, no smoking …. and wash behind your ears!' – for this gargantuan frozen block constitutes the mythic ice-laden mausoleum of … Santa Clause?
This beguiling premise informs Finish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s charming and decidedly idiosyncratic (if not downright weird) take on the art of Christmas fable-making. On one level Rare Exports is a clever, funny, oddly life-affirming satire on the wholesale usurpation and distortion of a country’s cultural history; its myths and folklore sanitised and re-packaged for consumption in the name of trans-global commercial enterprise, then presented gift-wrapped to the world as ‘tradition’. But actually it’s all done with such a delicate lightness of touch and within the framework of a lovely, offbeat coming-of-age fantasy drama, managing to retain inscrutability to the end and certainly never developing into that sort of crass and predictable brand of seasonal exploitation horror (during which, for instance, a killer Santa usually can be counted on to run amok with an axe, etc. at some stage in the game) which makes for the sub-genre’s usual approach in such matters.
|Pietari (Onni Tommila) conducts his research|
|The real Santa Claus?|
|Deep into the night|
This movie is a Finish language feature-length expansion of two short films previously produced as advertisements for the work of a Scandinavian production company specialising in the making of TV commercials, both also written and directed by Jalmari Helander and originally released on the internet in 2003 and 2005 respectively, where they soon gained something of a cult following. Although even this fleshed out version only has a running time of about 70 minutes, the simple story brings together family drama, classic horror and children’s fantasy, and ends on a somewhat fantastical note of drollery that feels like it could’ve just as easily been the starting point for a whole second chapter rather than the film’s concluding flourish. Indeed, this is the sort of work that never fully reveals its hand or spells out every detail, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer while still evoking intrigue, bafflement and occasionally the threat of horror, as a series of increasingly strange happenings come to upset the hardy, no-nonsense world of a subsistent community of grizzled reindeer hunters on the snowy Lapland plains.
|Preparing for battle|
|Father & son|
|A mysterious find|
|The strange dolls|
But the strangest discovery of all is to be made by Pietari himself, at the bottom of the illegal ‘wolf pit’ Pietari’s father has dug outside his slaughtering shed: the pig’s head bait dangling above it has gone, and there is something else at the bottom of the snow covered ditch full of sharpened wooden stakes -- but it isn't one of the hungry mountain wolves! Instead Pietari’s dad and his mate Piiparinen discover a skinny old man with a long white beard, completely naked and clutching a potato sack with one of the funny looking dolls inside it! At first the two men think they have accidentally killed one of the displaced workers from the excavation site, and decide to cut up the body and say nothing more of the incident. But their guest is suddenly sparked back into life when he catches a whiff of ‘child’ – for Pietari is sneakily monitoring events through the slaughter-shed window – and at this point Pietari’s dad starts to wonder whether there might actually be something in his son’s wild claims after all.
|Meeting a legend?|
In fact, the reality of the situation is a lot more complicated than this confused band of impoverished hunters could have ever imagined. The strange events that have been occurring all around the village, and the undeniable reality of this weird, uncommunicative, naked old man with an apparent taste for human flesh, who appears all-of-a-sudden in their midst, opens up the possibility that beneath its surface the world is something other than Rauno Kontio and his colleagues once believed it to be – it’s something more akin, in fact, to the forbidding fairy tale land of dark, threatening fantasy to which his son has been attuned for some time.
|A hero to the rescue|
As the fantastical nature of what they are all confronted with becomes all too apparent to the group, little Pietari – once the overlooked, pushed around or ignored one in the community – suddenly becomes the plucky hero of the hour. Only he is fully prepared for this emergency -- not just in the fact that he has already come dressed like an infant warrior, clad in hockey helmet and abundant body padding, but prepared also in mind for doing battle with the forces of Christmas evil. As cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s dazzling photography -- with the aid of a small army of digital effects artists, who also helped with the distinctive visual presentation of this film -- shrouds itself more and more, come the film's final act, in its lustrous palette of tinselly Christmas wonder, it is as though the visual actualisation of Pietari’s fantasy life comes to denote his being able at last to find a way of belonging in the world, and a way to communicate with his father once again. His plan for how to deal with the apparently impossible scale of the problem confronting them all ends up making use of the very skills the hunters employ every day in the harsh winter landscape that provides them their simple home, yet only this little boy has the ingenuity to come up with that plan and to take charge of the situation, in this new world of dangerous fairy tales, let alone see the connection in the first place.
|Bravery in the night|
|Father & son united|
Well, thankfully budgetary restraints remove that option from Helander’s grasp, and so we just have to learn to make do with the film’s small-scale, understated, ironic but emotionally intelligent form of resolution instead. Oh well …!Actually, one can almost hear the inevitable, unsubtle, broad-brush-approach English language remake cranking itself into gear, so catch this gem of a Christmas treat now, before its memory is tarnished by future lesser imitations!
TITLE: RARE EXPORTS: A Christmas Tale/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 2010/DVD RELEASE DATE: 7 November 2011/GENRE: Fantasy/LABEL: ICON Home Entertainment/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 2.35:1/DIRECTOR: Jalmari Helander/CAST: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Rauno Juvonen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi