Tuesday, 20 December 2011

RARE EXPORTS - A Christmas Tale (2010)

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?
Closer to the mark perhaps is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984): both films share a sense of mischievousness and have a wry, macabre streak at their festive core. Rare Exports tends more towards the whimsical side of fantasy though -- a kind of adult, horror-themed Roald Dahl for the arthouse crowd. But despite a small amount of gore and a bit of swearing, Helander in the end crafts a beautiful, understated family drama here -- with a rich, attractive visual palette illuminated in all the most Christmassy, winter-warming emerald and scarlet colours of the season; a film tenderly gilded and enhanced by the solitary imaginings of its ten-year-old protagonists, raised in a tough, unforgiving environment, whose escapist dreams and naive fantasies might just prove to have a patina of truth to them after all. 
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
It all starts with that curious icy pit on the mountainside, and Riley’s grandiose claims for it being a historically significant discovery. Watching from behind some discarded packing crates as the bewildered foreign excavation team prepare to dissenter their momentous finding with massed dynamite blasts, are local friends Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) and his fantasy-prone companion Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila). The two kids have illicitly stolen across the fenced-off Russian border to find out what’s really been going on here on the other side of the snow covered mountain that towers above their shanty-like ‘village’ -- and it is little Pietari who interprets Riley’s speechifying to mean that the tomb of Santa Claus has been uncovered, much to the amusement of his rough and slightly bullying ‘friend’, who can’t believe Pietari still hasn’t realised that the rotund fella in red who delivers his gifts each year is really just his dad’s hirsute best friend and fellow co-worker Piiparinen (Rauno Juvonen) dressed up in a baggy Santa suit. 
Father & son
Back home, Pietari throws himself into his researches (he seems to have quite the little library stashed away in his father’s candle-lit, wood beam attic -- despite the pair living in the middle of nowhere) and discovers that the Santa Claus of Nordic myth was somewhat different to the kindly, rosy-cheeked, mince pie munching dispenser of toys and good cheer most people assume him to be: in fact, ancient Nordic Santa isn’t a very nice Santa at all, really: rather than handing out gifts, he hands out brutal punishment to naughty kids instead; and in most of the illustrations in Pietari’s books he resembles a shaggy, horned ogre  that’s often pictured plunging bawling children into his oversized cooking pot. When Pietari discovers the reindeer herds, that his father and the rest of their small community depend upon for their livelihood, have been wiped out by wolves which came down the mountain from across the Russian border and through the hole in the wire-mesh fence he and Juuso cut when they first went to visit the excavation pit (the predators were scattered there by the dynamite blasts), he’s convinced that the punishment he surely now deserves will be meted out to him by the entity that’s currently thawing out, somewhere across that icy fell.
A mysterious find
Helander shoots this opening act in the style of a particularly picturesque but otherwise quite understated coming-of-age drama, in which child actor Onni Tommila is immediately likable as the slightly pudgy faced outsider with a taste for patterned, chunky-knit wool sweaters. The snow-capped mountainous Finish landscape is Christmas card perfect, yet it’s a harsh, lonely environment to grow up in, especially when your mother has recently died and your dad (played by Onni’s real life father Jorma Tommila) struggles to communicate through his grief, retreating instead behind a veil of taciturn remoteness. At this stage the viewer doesn’t quite know whether to accept the wilder speculations and assumptions of Pietari’s imaginings: were the wolves responsible for the plains of fallen reindeer? And who or what was responsible for the footprints in the snow on the ledge outside Pietari’s bedroom window?
The strange dolls
When Pietari’s father, Rauno, and his hunting group decide to march on to the excavation site across the border with the intention of demanding recompense from the mining company for their losses, they find it mysteriously empty. Then other odd stuff starts happening: someone has stolen a warehouse full of potato sacks and left their contents scattered in great heaps across the floor of the building; every radiator and hairdryer in the district has vanished overnight; and all the kids, including Pietari’s friend Juuso, have gone missing with them -- to be replaced with a horrid-looking, life-sized doll figure that’s been left in each of their beds in their stead!

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?
And if this is the real Santa Claus, then maybe the rich backers of the original excavation might be willing to pay big money to get him back!

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
What Rauno, Pietari and the others discover when they turn up at the excavation site in a raging night-time snow blizzard, for a meeting with Riley in order to negotiate their terms for a Santa ‘hand over’, is a long way from being explainable in real world rational terms; but one gets the feeling that Pietari’s ‘frozen Santa’ narrative -- in which the giant horned resident of the ice block is being shepherded by his elfish band of ancient wizened helpers, intent on delivering the village’s children to him (it?) en masse, in sacks, for who knows what purpose, as they busily set about thawing the being to whom they are evidently devoted out of his frozen tomb by using the town’s stolen hairdryers -- provides a framework for understanding events that certainly makes a lot more sense than anything the adults -- Rauno and his bewildered friends -- are capable of concocting.

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
This film comes, then, to be about a father and his son finding each other again after a long winter of grief, while remaining shorn of the syrupy sentimentality that, at its worst, often plagues the Hollywood approach to such subject matter. The whimsical ending, in which the men of the group begin to mould their fantastical discovery into a commercially viable way of making a living, now that their livelihood as reindeer hunters has disappeared, may strike some as a touch recondite and left-field; and certainly, if this were a Hollywood feature, you sense we would have had a much bigger reveal of the giant horned thing nesting inside that ice block at some point near the end, and probably a showy, FX-heavy face-off between it and the protagonists as a conclusion, as well.
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

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