Monoglot Movie Club: A Poor Second To Belgium

Part of an occasional series in which Spank The Monkey travels to foreign countries, watches films in unfamiliar languages, and then complains about not understanding them


You’re so sadly neglected
And often ignored
A poor second to Belgium
When going abroad
Finland, Finland, Finland
The country where I quite want to be

–       Monty Python, Finland

Quick! Name a famous Finnish film director. I’ll give you bonus points for lateral thinking if you said Renny Harlin, but arthouse cinema fans will probably have plumped for Aki Kaurismäki. Sadly, I didn’t get to see any of his movies on my recent visit to Helsinki, but it’s hard to avoid the man’s presence, particularly if you’re the sort of person that eats food. The Belated Birthday Girl and I kept ending up in restaurants that were either patronised by the director (the menu at Kosmos includes ‘Pike perch with Lobster Sauce and Crayfish Tails au Gratin à la Aki Kaurismäki’), or owned by him. Of the latter, Zetor is probably the best one to go for, with its tractor-heavy décor and its patriotic blueberry pie served in a tin mug, as seen above.

Still, you have to assume that Finnish cinema doesn’t begin and end with Kaurismäki. So I made it my mission, as ever, to track down a couple of the latest domestic releases, and attempt to watch them without the benefit of English subtitles. Good news for all you lovers of schadenfreude: one of these turned out to be Monoglot Movie Club’s first complete failure.

The main cinema chain in Finland is the imaginatively-named Finnkino, with three multiplexes in the capital city and another one close to the airport in Vantaa. The Kinopalatsi has all the hi-tech features that you’d expect from a modern cinema, and one that you wouldn’t – the gents’ urinals all have video monitors installed in the top part of the porcelain, allowing you to have a slash and watch the trailer for Pacific Rim at the same time. “Hey, look at the size of this monster,” I said to the guy standing next to me, just before he hit me.

Still, the hi-tech features included completely automatic ticket machines, so I was able to purchase tickets for Pystyssä without anyone realising that I didn’t speak Finnish. It’s always a nice victory when you can get away with that. It’s a victory that proved less impressive when the lights went down and I found out that they were showing a print with English subtitles.

Something I hadn’t really appreciated until recently was that Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish. So I was aware that some films would be in Finnish, but with Swedish subtitles, a little like the setup I encountered in Belgium last Christmas. But English subtitles came as a bit of a surprise. It turned out that Pystyssä had a London screening last year, when it won the Best Debut Feature prize at the Raindance festival: presumably the English subs required for that were deemed a good enough substitute for any non-Finnish speakers in a Helsinki cinema. I just wish they’d mentioned it in the advertising, that’s all.

Technically, I shouldn’t be reviewing a perfectly-subtitled film in Monoglot Movie Club at all: but we have a space to fill, and a new editor who doesn’t want too many upsets on his first day back in the job. So. Pystyssä (Indebted) tells the story of Elli (Heidi Lindén), a college student who’s struggling to pay her bills, and reduced to pawning her family jewellery for cash. The morning after a drunken night out, she wakes up to find the master copy of a sex tape that she doesn’t remember making, along with a few hundred euro. Putting the pieces together, she realises that she has some new options for getting out of her financial problems.

I went into Pystyssä knowing next to nothing about it, and my heart sank a little at this point, as I realised I’d have to write another MMC article featuring a Scandinavian film about sex work. This film takes a slightly different tack from Call Girl, though. There’s a lot of artful camerawork which implies the depths to which Elli sinks without actually, to take one example, showing urine hitting skin. At first, I thought this was a commercial strategy to keep the film down to a 12 rating (the Finnish one is a bit broader than the BBFC’s, obviously). But it could also be seen as a distancing device, replicating the detachment Elli needs to get through her job.

Just as you think you’ve got a handle on where the film is heading, the camera literally wanders away from Elli in mid-shot and picks up on another woman’s story. Iiris (Kristiina Puukko) is in charge of a team of Eastern Europeans working for a debt collection agency. The implication is that she’s doing this to work off her own debt, and this also applies to her colleagues, including the increasingly friendly Andrei (Juha-Tapio Arola). As we cross-cut between the two stories, we start to see subtle parallels between them, and the emergence of a subtext on how economic systems trap people – especially women – into doing things they don’t want to do.

For two-thirds or so of its running time, Pystyssä pulls off a fine balancing act of humane drama and social comment: but when the time comes to link the two threads of the narrative together, it drops the ball completely. Once it’s revealed that Iiris’ agency also runs the pawn shop that Elli visited in scene one, the coincidences and bad melodrama start piling up. Eventually people are pulling out guns, and you realise that the Finns are just as bad at ending thrillers as we Brits are. Which is a shame, because for its first hour Mara Jelinko’s movie shows a hell of a lot of ambition in all departments. I’m prepared to consider its final act as a failure of nerve rather than anything else, and I’m very keen to see what his second feature looks like.

Compared against the Kinopalatsi, the Finnkino Vantaa is a lot more basic. Which is why I came to my second film expecting to be able to buy a ticket from a touch-screen display, only to discover that I’d have to say the title out loud to a human being. Worse than that, it was a title that started with a number, so I couldn’t even bluff the pronunciation. Surprisingly, saying “I’d like a ticket for Twenty-One mumble mumble mumble, the Finnish one, please” worked just fine at the counter: Finnish kiosk operatives are obviously a lot more unflappable than their counterparts in other countries.

I’d already established that 21 Tapaa Pilata Avioliitto was to be screened in Finnish with Swedish subtitles, so I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about being assailed with English text. And as you can tell from the kletzmer music and bright colours of the trailer, it’s a much lighter proposition than Pystyssä, even though its title translates as 21 Ways To Ruin Your Marriage. Unless I’m completely misinterpreting what happens here, the main character Sanna Manner (Armi Toivanen) appears to be teaching a college course with the same title. She films couples over a number of years, starting on their wedding day and making regular return visits, and then presents her findings on their marital problems to her students.

Is she doing all this while not finding any joy in her own relationships? Of course. Will that have changed by the end of the movie? Well, that might be the case if she didn’t have to also deal with the relationship problems of the people in her social circle. The flatmate who makes all of her decisions based on the last thing she heard on the radio: the flatmate’s co-worker coming out of a messy divorce: the young male assistant and his needy missus: and Sanna’s newly-separated parents, one of whom is taking it much more badly than the other.

But yes, is the short answer. What, did you think that Finnish romcoms would be different from any others the world over? 21 Tapaa turns out to be a good example of a genre film where you can enjoy the story beats being hit with satisfying precision, even when you don’t understand exactly why they’re being hit. There are some neat visual comic sequences, too. I especially liked Sanna driving up to one wedding and passing the bride getting a pre-nuptial seeing-to in the back of the official car. She gets to the church to see a man standing in front of it. She asks a question which, according to those helpful Swedish subs, includes the words ‘best man?’ The confusion on his face tells you all you need to know.

Despite the surface gloss, there’s a satisfying nub of darkness at the core of the film. The 21 Ways of the title are used as a Drowning By Numbers-style structural device: as Sanna encounters them, they’re freeze-framed and captioned on screen. It’s a cutely cynical touch that you know all along is going to be subverted by the end of the movie. But it’s not all Love Conquers All – a couple of plot threads involving old people and their inability to cope with loss give the surrounding romantic dilemmas a little more weight by contrast. Writer/director Johanna Vuoksenmaa manages somehow to balance all these tones against each other, aided by Armi Toivanen’s delightful comic performance and a solid supporting cast.

Finland suffers in the same way as most of the other countries I’ve covered in this series: outside of the domestic market, we’re only aware of a tiny number of the films and filmmakers they produce. Not every Finnish director can be Aki Kaurismäki – for one thing, there isn’t enough alcohol in the world to cope with that scenario – but it’s good to discover that he’s not the only one.

Spank The Monkey’s main regret on this Helsinki trip was that he couldn’t get into Kafe Mockba, Aki Kaurismäki’s Soviet theme bar. 

About Spank The Monkey

Spank The Monkey has been talking nonsense about popular culture on the internet since 1998. He can be found doing that in long form on his blog, and in short form on Twitter. He is a regular contributor to Mostly Film, where his specialist subjects are Asian cinema, cult movies and TV, and watching foreign films without the benefit of subtitles. He lives in London with somebody else.

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