Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies)

Olli Mäki in 1958

THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI (Hymyilevä mies)            B+                  
Finland  Sweden  Germany  (92 mi)  2016  d:  Juho Kuosmanen

A film of wit, brevity, and style, winner of the of the Un Certain Regard Prize at Cannes, offering a candidly refreshing side of Finnish boxer Olli Mäki who had a shot at the 1962 World Featherweight title in Helsinki, the first world championship match to take place in any Nordic country.  What makes this so fascinating is Olli’s low-key, uniquely subdued personality, as he’d rather be almost anywhere except the center of attention, feeling terribly out of place throughout the entire run-up to the fight, which is filled with publicity interviews, photographs, and newspaper stories hyping the fight.  Jarkko Lahti plays the rather reluctant hero, a small town guy who’s more at home working on cars, playing with kids, or bicycling through the countryside, seen early on with his girlfriend Raija (Oona Airola), where the two seem genuinely happy and in sync with each other, with both speaking their minds, but choosing few words to do it.  So Olli’s overdriven trainer and manager, Elis (Eero Milonoff), a former boxer himself, is a bit perplexed when Olli shows up for training camp with a girlfriend in tow.  In boxing circles, that’s just not done.  Nonetheless, he couldn’t get through the process without her, reminiscent of some of the early Buster Keaton films, like BATTLING BUTLER (1926), who only got into the sport of boxing to impress his girlfriend.  In fact, it would be easy to think this is a fictionalized film, as it only has traces of boxing to the story, most all of it taking place outside the ring, where it’s more of a character driven drama, feeling at times like a Kaurismäki road movie showcasing the outdoor beauty of the Finnish countryside, especially the wild music that opens the film played by the Ykspihlajan Kino-orkesteri (composed by Miika Snåre), Hymyileva mies - The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki | Cannes winner "Un certain regard" YouTube (1:33).  The real Olli Mäki had a distinguished amateur career, placing second in the European lightweight category in 1957, ultimately winning the championship in 1959 while still in his early 20’s, turning professional shortly afterwards with a record of 8-1, while his more experienced opponent, the reigning champion Davey Moore, had a professional record of 56-6. 

A visually striking first feature, shot in a sumptuous 16mm black and white photography by Jani-Petteri Passi evoking the newsreel coverage of the period, there is an immediacy captured simply by the way the film is shot, using plenty of 60’s cinéma vérité handheld camera movement, like that seen in Cassavetes’ Shadows (1959) or Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963), though there will inevitably be comparisons to Scorsese’s indelible portrait of Jake LaMotta in RAGING BULL (1980).  Far from being the bruiser that LaMotta was, Mäki is a communist baker from rural Finland where in boxing jargon he is known as the “Baker of Kokkola,” not exactly fierce words that make opponents tremble at the thought.  Instead he is a homegrown, working class hero with that one in a million chance to be Finland’s golden boy, where the real driving force behind his opportunity is his hard-nosed and ruthlessly ambitious trainer Elis who continually showcases his fighter in endless photo shoots, sponsor dinners, while meeting other high roller financiers in the bright lights of Helsinki.  But in contrast to the icy blondes of the big city, Olli is falling in love with an easygoing hometown girl in Raija, seen making eye contact with her at one of the press conferences, where the two may as well be lost in their own little world, making it harder for him to concentrate on the fight, as he simply wants to be with her.  Instead, Elis urges him to “look cruel” in one of the many pre-fight publicity photos, and when Olli hesitates to blow his own horn and instead humbly praises his opponent, Elis is quick to step in and play the part of the blustery promoter, continually raising the hopes of his countrymen, announcing he’ll be ready once they step into the ring.   Among his biggest concerns is dropping from lightweight to featherweight, where he’ll have to lose a significant amount of weight.  Boxers, like wrestlers, are used to this, but having never fought in this division before, he’s not sure what to expect.  Adding to this is the absurdity of all the free food provided by sponsor dinners, where making light of the situation is one of the things this film does best.  

Initially, when Mäki runs off to Helsinki to train, Raija comes with him, comically placed together in a small children’s room with bunk beds, where to get away and have some time together they run off to a local fairground attraction, throwing balls to dunk a pretty maiden in a pool of water.  But later, once she’s returned home, he revisits the fairground alone, in a beautiful series of shots not only invoking a tinge of sadness, but a despairing aspect in the harshness of the conditions by the people forced to work there, where we don’t even know who they are but we are led to feel empathy towards them.  With Olli left alone, we see him punishingly train outdoors in the rain, as the fight will be outdoors, yet he’s pushed to the limits, not physical endurance, which he’s used to, but all the other extraneous aspects that throw him into the limelight, eventually running away, back to the countryside to be with Raija, the place where their romance blooms, where some of the most charming scenes reveal the simplicity of the Finnish countryside, with people proudly linked to the land, as we see Olli take a heat sauna followed by a naked dip in one of the lakes.  When seen in this light, nothing could possibly feel more natural.  While no shortage of complications exist, the film inevitably leads to the ordeal in the ring, but not before a brief but telling scene reveals the date of the fight really is the happiest day of his life, something that will not be lost by viewing audiences, as happiness is something found in unexpected places and amounts to more than a fleeting moment of triumph.  The fight itself feels anti-climactic, though only because of the even-handed balance in the story, feverishly shifting angles and perspectives, all in search of an authentic emotional truth, where the film is at its best lingering on faces, sharing small, playful moments, infused with the smallest details far beyond the cliché’s of sports films, where the emotional resonance of romance takes hold and is utterly captivating.  Like John Garfield in Robert Rossen’s boxing film Body and Soul (1947), personal magnetism, refusing to be exploited, and the ability to express human decency prevails.  It’s only fitting, then, that the real-life Olli and Raija appear in the film’s final scene, a fitting tribute to them both. 


  1. Fine review. Many good points. I've seen Hymyilevä mies ("The Smiling Man") subtitled in English, and a lot of the nuances in the dialogue are sadly lost in translation. Of course, this happens all the time, it's only worth mentioning because dialogue is often the most problematic aspect in Finnish movies: Hymyilevä mies has the best, most natural dialogue in memory. A bit surprisingly, Hymyilevä mies has not been a big blockbuster in Finland despite its win at Cannes. Its box office performance has been just ok. I met Olli Mäki briefly, and he is a most friendly, humble person. Even more minute in stature than he appears in the film. For me, the deliberately anti-climactic fight at the end ranks among the finest scenes of its kind because of its utter truthfulness and originality. There's an interesting debate going on whether Hymyilevä mies is Kuosmanen's feature length debute or not; it was preceded by Taulukauppiaat (The Painting Sellers), a very fine movie as well, which clocks in at just about 60 minutes depending on the format (film vs. dcp). The "Finnish Oscars" - Jussi Award - accepted it as a full length film and nominated it for Best Film, Direction and in a number of other categories. I can't say with absolute certainty, but as far as I know, Hymyilevä mies is the first Finnish film which uses cinema verite techniques in a completely satisfactory manner. For me and many other Finnish film buffs Hymyilevä mies is the most exciting Finnish film of the decade.

  2. Great to hear from you again Anton. This is an amazing film, filled with a kind of under the radar energy, authentic characters, and a deeply felt humanism. It feels so simplistic, like a carefully thought out hidden gem, yet few other films can match its rare honesty. Perhaps the sports angle is keeping the public away, as for many, that's not what they go to the movies to see. One of my friends refused to see it for that reason, despite the Cassavetes resemblance.

    Maybe all the critical acclaim will bring his earlier film to some special screenings, where it would be interesting to take a look.

    Always happy to hear from you.