Friday, August 3, 2007

Message From Finlandia

LIGHTS IN THE DUSK / LAITAKAUPUNGIN VALOT
(Aki Kaurism/Ski, Finland, 2006, 80 mins.)


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It comes off with a nice flavor, and then gives
you a slight bite as it starts down the throat.

-- Vodka Rocks on Finlandia

******

As written, most Aki Kaurism/Ski films read like film noir. As directed, they
play like deadpan comedy. (Or comic tragedy.) Lights in the Dusk follows
that formula to the letter. It doesn't break new ground for this Finnish director,
but if you're tuned into his idiosyncratic wavelength, it's essential viewing.

If you're unfamiliar with his work, it isn't a bad place to start, although his latest concludes the "Loser Trilogy" that began with Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past. The themes are unemployment, homelessness, and loneliness. Since all three permeate his entire ouvre, Lights in the Dusk works fine as a stand-alone effort.

Granted, The Match Factory Girl and Drifting Clouds are my favorite Kaurism/Ski features. Lights in the Dusk isn't as funny as the former or as heartfelt as the
latter, but it's quintessential Kaurism/Ski. Like those films, it keeps you guessing from first frame to last. His pictures are always character studies, never conventional mysteries, but dialogue, exposition, and facial expression are kept to a minimum, so you never know what anyone's thinking. Nor can you predict what will happen next.

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It's what I love best about his work. It's also why I don't think it matters
whether you like his downtrodden characters or not. I suspect that he does,
but he never goes out of his way to make them lovable, or to cast actors
who seem desperate for approval. Kaurism/Ski seems more concerned that we
find these individuals interesting, and it helps that he always finds the perfect
actors to bring them to life. They're rarely conventionally attractive, but they are distinctive looking, which is convenient, as he's a big believer in the close-up.
In addition, Kaurism/Ski characters tend to address the camera directly when
they communicate with each other. Although he's often compared to Jim
Jarmusch, with whom he collaborated on A Night on Earth, it's a technique
he also shares with Jonathan Demme (and I'd forgotten all about that until
I recently re-watched The Silence of the Lambs). It feels as if he's inviting you
into their cigarette and Vodka-soaked world. It isn't a world I'd like to inhabit-
those who aren't unemployed are stuck in dead-end jobs-but it's fun to visit.
Lights in the Dusk's anti-hero is bright blue-eyed Koistinen (Janne Hyytl/Sinen).
From certain angles, he's the best looking man to grace a Kaurism/Ski film to
date, but then you notice that everyone else towers over him. Whether he's
short or they're tall makes little difference-Koistinen feels small. His particular
dead-end job is security guard for a luxury mall. For some unexplained reason,
his co-workers detest him, and Koistinen dreams of starting up his own company.
Personally, I love it that this hate is never explored. It's a classic chicken and
the egg scenario: Do people dislike Koistinen because he's a surly cuss or
because they're just bullies...or is it that years of bullying have turned Koistinen
into a surly cuss? In any case, his fellow guards are a thoroughly unpleasant lot.
In real life, Koistinen would have some kind of hobby or interest-an outlet
for his abundant frustration-but since he's trapped in a Kaurism/Ski film, he
has nothing. Well, he often chats with the ponytailed Aila (Maria Heiskanen),
who runs the neon-lit hotdog van near his block-like apartment building,
but that's about it, and he's almost as surly to her as everyone else. Almost.
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Koistinen's life briefly brightens when bottle-blonde Mirja (Maria J/Srvenhelmi)
enters the picture. It's clear she's up to something, but he either doesn't know
or doesn't care-just as he's oblivious to the fact that Aila appears to have a
thing for him. Koistinen meets Mirja at a coffee shop, strikes up a conversation,
and that's it: He's in love. So they hang out. She is kind and attentive to him-
even more so than Aila. As it turns out, she's setting him up to take a fall,
but at least he gets to enjoy a little romance prior to his descent into Hell.
I got a kick, for instance, out of the priceless exchange that ensues after
they take in a band one night. As Mirja watches hi-octane trio Melrose kick
up a ruckus, Koistinen can't stop staring at her. He can't seem to believe
his luck. Then, someone asks her to dance. Shortly afterwards, he takes her
home. On the way, she offers to teach him to "rock and roll," i.e. to dance.
"I know how to rock and roll," he states defensively. "I just didn't feel like it." Comfortingly, she notes, "It's easy to see you've got rock and roll in your blood."
And that will be Koistinen's last evening out with Mirja as he'll soon find
himself in the slammer. At first, I thought Kaurism/Ski was aiming for Crime
and Punishment
-style tragedy, like Frozen City, another recent Finnish feature,
but Koistinen really is an innocent. Or at least he isn't guilty of the crime for
which he's been convicted. And even Mirja, despite her actions, appears to
have a heart. She's just doing what she's told, which means she isn't the real
villain of the piece-that would be her oily boss, Lindholm (Ilkka Koivula).
To say more would be to say too much. Lights in the Dusk is beautifully shot
by Kaurism/Ski regular Timo Salminen. Most scenes take place at night, but
the hi-def images are always clear and crisp. Helsinki rarely looks warm or
inviting, yet the visuals appeal due to the clean compositions, sparkling lights,
and bursts of bright color, heavy on the Edward Hopper-esque reds and greens.
Like the man says above, it has "a nice flavor" and "a slight bite." A minor effort
in Aki Kaurism/Ski's filmography, Lights in the Dusk still manages to intoxicate.
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Lights in the Dusk opens Friday, 8/3, for one week at SIFF Cinema (321
Mercer Street, Seattle Center). For more information, please click here or call 206-633-7151. Daily: 8pm / Fri: 8, 10pm / Sat: 2, 8pm / Sun: 2, 4, 6, 8pm. Images from Gentblogt, Moviegids, Lost and Found Cinema, and Belfast Film Festival.

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