Sunday 19 September 2010

TIFF 2010 - "Lapland Odyssey"

Director Dome Karukoski sure knows how to set a tone. In order to get you into the spirit of his occasionally blackly comic single night road trip film Lapland Odyssey, he introduces you to a tree - a long-dead pine tree that has served as the hanging spot for 5 generations of suicidal Finnish men. From the early settlers of the area who were enticed via promises of cheap land to modern day young men who have no jobs, see no future and can't even catch a break when Finland makes it to the final of the Hockey World Championship (how cruel is it to be up 5-1 against rival Sweden and then still lose?) there have been a long line of swinging bodies. Around Christmas time - a period of typically very high unemployment, massive amounts of snow and very little sunlight - that dead tree is looking pretty good.

Our narrator informs us he even did an elementary school report on it as part of a project on local tourist attractions - apparently the highlight of his academic and professional careers. You get the feeling he's considered visiting that tree up close and personal. This isn't his story though - it's the tale of his best friend Janne's journey to find a digital TV recorder before 9 AM the next morning. If he doesn't, his live-in girlfriend will leave him. Before you think, "Well, that's harsh", understand that she's been asking him for 3 years, has actually given him the money to pay for it and specifically asked for him to do it that day so that they can watch "Titanic" together later that night. Since he failed at even getting that simple task done before the stores closed - wasting time sleeping and hanging with his similarly lethargic friends - she's laid down a final ultimatum.

With his two friends at his side, Janne calls around and manages to find a digibox (the Finnish term) in the city. So they hop in the car to travel a few hundred kilometers, but they still face a reasonably large problem: Janne has wasted the money he had, so they'll have to improvise along the way to make some cash. As with any road movie of this nature, most of the fun is centered on what they find and who they meet along the way - for example, killer lesbian underwater rugby players and Russian reindeer hunters who play paintball. They also need to deal with more run of the mill issues like the police, being out of gas, old boyfriends, storms and how best to wear designer pink seat covers as outdoor attire. Throughout their journey of mostly impossible events and coincidences, the constant background is the lapland scenery. It's gorgeously filmed and, forgetting for the moment the depressed economy and suicidal tendencies of its denizens, it looks to be a beautiful place to visit - and not just because of the flickering green Northern Lights during the frozen lake scene.

Even more important for a road movie, though, are the characters. You'll be spending a lot of time with them and hopefully be on their side as they hit a variety of speed bumps on their way. That's a bit of a tricky proposition in this case since all three guys along for the ride are prototypical "losers" with little to no motivation to accomplish anything (you really do wonder why Janne's girlfriend has stayed with him this long). To highlight this point, the third friend in the group spends the majority of his time playing a Pac-Man style video game that rewards level completions by fully exposing the breasts of women on the screen. Fortunately, they have just enough charm to get us to the point where we learn some of their back story and see them actually attempt to change. The characters may physically end up back where they were, but they've progressed to the point where they can actually believe in themselves. This is one of the themes of the movie and matches with a little story director Karukoski related before the screening: when Finland was listed as the number 1 country in the world in which to live, few people there believed it including a Finnish man who took it upon himself to recalculate the totals to show that they should actually be ranked number 2. Fortunately Karukoski believed enough in himself to make this movie - if not all the humour and bits of drama work perfectly, there is more than enough to keep an audience both engaged and entertained for the full running time.

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