The fabulous films of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki receive an exemplary release in a bulky box set of cinematic joy. Ten discs take you from the first feature to the proposed final film from the master of droll, dark humour which depicts the under-represented lives of normal Finnish folk in the increasingly difficult modern world. “Life is short and miserable,” states Lajunen (Markku Peltola) in Drifting Clouds; and this statement represents the fate of many of the protagonists in Kaurismäki’s work but this is mirthful misery, set in situations as absurdly bizarre as they are definitive in their realism. This virtually complete collection of features and shorts includes all of Kaurismäki’s cinematic features, including the Leningrad Cowboys films, the Finland Trilogy and his adaptations of classic works as well as everything else in-between, all accompanied by a 100 page booklet.
Adaptations of famous works of literature that are out of copyright are ideal material for the film-maker on a budget and, in altering them to reflect contemporary time, place and issues, they can become something altogether original. So Crime And Punishment (1983),Hamlet Goes Business (1987), La Vie Bohème (1992) and Match Factory Girl (1990) take their backgrounds from the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Henri Murger (Scènes de la Vie de Bohème) and Hans Christian Anderson respectively. A diverse range where, arguably, Kaurismäki makes the best Shakespeare alteration aside from Forbidden Planet to the two films of the Bard Akira Kurosawa. In Hamlet Goes Business Pirkka-Pekka Petelius plays the title character, upping the ante on his role in an adaptation of the play as the voice of Timon in The Lion King (1994). The taut and intense, Match Factory Girl sees Iris (Kati Outinen), a naive and innocent girl, fall in love with a man Aarne (Vesa Vierikko) in a nightclub and become pregnant, unaware that he believed her to be a prostitute. Events take an even darker (if that is possible in her situation) turn as the succinct narrative progresses. Crime And Punishment, Kaurismäki’s first feature set the career on a high role whilst the later La Vie de Bohème depicts a poet and a painter who meet a musician in Paris and they all try desperately to make ends meet in a realm of poverty and romance.
The Leningrad Cowboys films are distinct and unique indie films, partly because of the unusual protagonists and partly because of the Kaurismäki effect which links absurdity with dark humour in the most hilarious way. The Leningrad Cowboys (or Sleepy Sleepers) are a special band in many ways, they are extremely talented and play a tight set. They are also mildly ridiculous beyond their folk meets rock ‘n’ roll (many occasional covers) music because of their defined image of peaked coiffure hair styling and curvy pointed shoes. They are also phenomenally successful, performing in the largest attended concert in Finnish history with a breathtakingly huge accompaniment, 70,000 audience members, recorded for posterity by Kaurismäki in the film Total Balalaika Show (1994) which documents the whole concert. For many, though, the start of their appreciation of Kaurismäki and his distinct brand of pathos and mirth was via Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989) – a film so independent it even has a role for Jim Jarmusch, a film-maker whose indie credibility, whilst different from Kaurismäki’s, shares many characteristics. Here the Cowboys go to America seeking fame and fortune, something aided and abetted by their distinctly dubious manager Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää) who takes the group for a ride in more ways than one, even going so far as to stashing beers in the iced coffin of their dead comrade. In Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses (1994) the group change their image in an alcohol fuelled excursion to Mexico, following their hit single. Many bands have music videos but the Leningrad Cowboys have narrative nonsense with songs as portrayed in the included shorts These Boots, Those Were The Days, Thru The Wire, Rocky IV, Rich Little Bitch and Dogs Have No Hell.
The ‘Finland Trilogy’ was long in realisation from Drifting Clouds (1996) to Lights In The Dusk (2006) and reflects contemporary time, place and issues of job loss, trauma and even true love. They even conclude (spoiler alert!) with some degree of happiness for the characters. Drifting Clouds is one of Kaurismäki’s most critically lauded films. The opening song by Shelley Fisher, The Wonderful Girl That I Love, is apt and prefigures the purpose of the film despite the abject depression and troubles of our leading protagonists. It features head waitress Ilona Koponen (Kati Outinen), whose skill in the job results in more than just looking after the guests when, at the film’s opening, she is summoned to the kitchen: “Head waiter, would you come, the chef has lost it again.” Their talented chef has become drunk again. Alongside her tram driver husband, Lauri (Kari Väänänen), they are simply trying to make ends meet but trouble ensues for both. They live on credit to furnish their home, but any thoughts of repayment are scuppered when the owner of the restaurant that employs Ilona is forced to sell up after the owner is bankrupted by dubious bankers (an issue that recurs in many of Kaurismäki’s films) and cuts in public transport services lead to Lauri losing his job following a workers’ card drawing unemployment lottery. “I am not living off of the state,” he declares but life is becoming increasingly troublesome as he fails a medical and Ilona loses money to the corrupt Nelia employment agency. With even the dog out of work it could even be the time to sell the Buick. A grim reflection on contemporary capitalist mores Drifting Clouds is indie art meets social issues in a compact and delightful depressive movie with a joyous ending of romance and resolution. The Man Without A Past (2002) has Markku Peltola as M, a man (with no name as well as no past) who is savagely beaten to the point of death but manages to stay alive albeit with serious injuries. “My head’s damaged somehow, I don’t know who I am,” sums up his progress as he begins a new life unaware of his old one. This life evolvies around the a group of people living on the margins of society, many of whom rely on the help of the Salvation Army. M makes do as best he can, his new wish to become a rock ‘n roll Christian group manager and even find romance. So his adage “Never give up, even if you lose your memory,” proves apt and enlightening. Another violent beating and someone else with “rock ‘n’ roll in his blood” Lights In The Dusk (2006) sees security guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) wallowing in his lonely, angst ridden life when he comes across the beautiful Lindholm (Ilkka Koivula), who becomes his only friend aside from Grilli food van operator Aila (Maria Heiskanen). Lindholm offers more than love, however, as she is part of a criminal gang that are instigating a jewellery robbery in the shopping mall that Koistinen guards, seeking nefarious was of getting his access to perform their larceny. More troubles and strife ensue but could genuine romance prove to be the ultimate resolution for glum Koistinen?
Ariel (1988) features more romance and misery as well as construction work when coal miner Taisto Kasurinen (Turo Pajala) finds himself out of a job, trying to find work through an employment exchange and attempting work in the meat trade and as a security guard with notable dire results. The resolution (the clue is in the title, and not more Shakespeare from The Tempest either) may or may not offer hope in this further study of proletariat woe in consumerist culture, as you weep and chortle in equal measure.
Other Features included in this cinematic treasure trove are Calamari Union (1985) Shadows In Paradise (1986), Take Care Of You Scarf, Tatjana (1994) Juha (1999) and Le Havre (2011). At the time of writing, Aki Kaurismäki has declared that he has made his last film, the profound and moving The Other Side Of Hope (2017). While we can but hope that he might return to the director’s chair, in the meantime we have this luscious box set to trace his feature films (and some shorts, from band film Oo Aina Ihminen to the delightful Valimo which features a cinema and staff for foundry workers to watch Marx brothers films projected by a cowboy hat wearing projectionist) and enjoy the dark, droll, witty work of one of contemporary cinema’s greats.