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Varjoja paratiisissa, 1986
[Shadows in Paradise]


Outinen/PellonpaaEvery morning at the break of dawn, Nikander (Matti Pellonpää) and his co-worker (Esko Nikkari) conduct their silent ritual by making their way through a maze of trucks parked in the depot of a waste management company, picking up their daily itinerary, settling into their assigned vehicle, driving to their designated industrial areas to collect the accumulated trash from the cumbersome dumpsters, and taking an occasional break from work by stopping at a convenient diner before resuming their collection route. Eager to celebrate the end of the work week with a bottle of liquor smuggled into the locker room, Nikander's colleague attempts to entice him with a business proposition that he has been planning for years: to launch a start-up garbage disposal service with Nikander serving as his foreman. It is an attractive offer that seems well suited to Nikander's own curious efforts at self-enrichment as he alternately spends his evenings studying English language comprehension through pre-recorded instructional lessons and playing bingo at a local gaming parlor. Preying on Nikander's conscience with a sobering reflection on his increasingly failing health as well as his unfulfilled promises to his devoted wife for an exotic vacation and a life of luxury - along with a humble (and humorous) wish to die behind a desk instead of behind the wheel of a garbage truck - his colleague convinces him to accept the proposal, and conveys his consent by indicating that he should take a course in order to help him prepare for his new professional role. However, tragedy strikes before his colleague's plans can be set to motion, and Nikander soon finds himself seemingly trapped in the same rut of his dead-end job until he again meets a genial and attentive cashier named Ilona (Kati Outinen) taking a smoking break - a supermarket samaritan who had once dressed his wounded arm after a car repair injury - and immediately falls for her.

The first film in what would evolve into the Proletariat Trilogy (along with Ariel and The Match Factory Girl), Shadows in Paradise is a muted, understatedly atmospheric, sublimely realized, and darkly comic romantic fable. Using alternating daytime and nighttime shots of exterior spaces and dimly lit interiors that obscure temporal reference, Aki Kaurismäki captures the inherent monotony - and often unproductive - perpetual routines that symptomatically define the dead-end, inescapable plight and marginalization of the working class: impersonal public spaces (night class study rooms, bars, restaurants, hotels, and bingo halls) that serve as an extension to the characters' alienated existence; recurring episodes of unrealized and aborted plans (the colleague's business proposal, Ilona's impulsive act of revenge, Nikander's truncated courtship) that illustrate a pattern of disappointment and failed attempts at a better life; Ilona's history of job insecurity that mirrors the instability of her relationship with Nikander. Kaurismäki further implements visual incongruity through idiosyncratic, but subtly effective (and thematically contradictory) camerawork in order to reflect the untenability of personal fulfillment: initially, in the unexpectedly rapid zoom-out, long shot of Nikander and Ilona's kiss, then subsequently in Nikander's extreme close-up after Ilona leaves the apartment. It is this underlying elusiveness of happiness that wryly punctuates the seemingly idyllic parting image of the film: a glimpse of reconciliation and a new beginning amid the obscuring sight of a fog-laden horizon under ominously dark clouds, drifting sluggishly, but inalterably into the strangely familiar unknown.

© Acquarello 2004. All rights reserved.

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Hamlet liikemaailmassa, 1987
[Hamlet Goes Business]


Outinen/Vaananen/Petelius/SaloIn the highly competitive corporate environment of modern-day Denmark, Hamlet (Pirkka-Pekka Petelius) is the heir to his father's (Pentti Auer) majority stake in the family's diversified commercial enterprise. His father's business partner and senior board member, Klaus (Esko Salminen), is negotiating a delicate, multilayered transaction with rival companies to sell off less profitable ventures in exchange for cornering the market on a single, novelty product line: rubber ducks from Sweden. Having earlier caused the death of the elder Hamlet in order to gain the post of Chief Executive Officer and to marry his mistress, Hamlet's mother, Gertrude (Elina Salo), Klaus has now enlisted the aid of his chief lieutenant, Polonius (Esko Nikkari), to formulate a strategy in order to divest Hamlet of his shareholdings and realize his ambition of the rubber duck monopoly. To this end, Polonius has instructed his daughter, Hamlet's girlfriend, Ophelia (Kati Outinen), to drive Hamlet to the brink of passion, then rebuff him in an attempt to persuade the young heir into marrying her and thereby wrest control of his shares. Meanwhile, Hamlet's childhood friend, Lauri Polonius (Kari Väänänen), impulsively resigns from the company after a failed attempt to negotiate for new office (one that does not require entrance through the restroom) and to plead with him to stop his amorous pursuit of Ophelia. Severing ties with Hamlet, Lauri embarks on a trip to Sweden in order to resume his academic studies, making a final entreaty to Ophelia to resist Hamlet's indelicate advances. Abandoned by his friend, haunted by his father's restless spirit, and frustrated by his beloved Ophelia's constant rejection, Hamlet sinks into a state of confusion, melancholy, guilt, and despair.

A sardonic and irreverent contemporary adaptation of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, Hamlet Goes Business is an idiosyncratically whimsical, yet incisive satire on corporate greed, materialism, corruption, and vengeance. Shot in black and white and employing high contrast lighting, the film achieves an atmospheric noir that reflects Aki Kaurismäki's irrepressibly droll sense of humor and penchant for understated irony. Kaurismäki incorporates traditional, often manipulative and hackneyed stylistic devices of lush, overarching music, directed stage lighting, expressionistic gestures, skewed camera angles, and meticulously composed slow motion shots in order to playfully subvert dramatic convention: Lauri's angered departure from Hamlet's office; Hamlet's self-consciously tormented delivery of a poem to Ophelia; the overdramatic, but anticlimactic plot device of the Murder of Gonzago play-within-a-play episode to expose Klaus's treachery; the exquisite choreography of Ophelia's final moments of despair. By integrating muted emotion with exaggerated theatricality, Kaurismäki creates a delirious and incongruent fusion of highbrow art film and pop culture kitsch - a patently iconoclastic comedic tragedy on indecision, inertia, and alienation.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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Ariel, 1988

PajalaTaisto (Turo Pajala) is the archetypal Kaurismäki anti-hero. His unkempt, impassive demeanor serves as a disarming, impenetrable defense mechanism against the seeming absurdity of his hapless life. The film opens to the activity of a mine shutdown, as Taisto and his coworkers resignedly look on as the explosives are detonated. A disillusioned friend gives Taisto the keys to his prized possession - a Cadillac convertible - and tells him to drive as far away as he can, before committing suicide in the men's room of the diner. Heeding his friend's somber advice, he decides to pack his suitcase and leave home. Within seconds of driving away, the roof of his garage collapses. Taisto's luck immediately turns from bad to worse when two assailants target him at a mobile hamburger stand and rob him of his life savings. The following morning, he finds a job as a day laborer at a shipyard loading dock, and decides to celebrate in the evening by going to a bar, where he invariably falls asleep. One afternoon, a meter maid named Irmeli (Susanna Haavisto) stops to admire the convertible and issues a parking ticket, but Taisto succeeds in getting the ticket discarded by agreeing to take her out to dinner. Taisto immediately falls in love with her (in his usual inexpressive way), and, in between job hunting, spends time bonding with Irmeli and her young, and equally reticent, son. However, his near-perfect life collapses when a chance encounter with one of the muggers is captured on a police surveillance camera at a subway station, and Taisto is arrested.

Aki Kaurismäki creates a snide and irreverent chronicle of a man's search for love and happiness in Ariel. Using the austere landscape of the Finnish Laplands, black humor, understated expression, and character inertia, Kaurismäki presents an incisive and acutely droll portrait of small town ennui and the dark comedy of life's anecdotal incongruities: Taisto and Irmeli's whirlwind courtship unfolds with a resigned acceptability of mutual "non-hatred" instead of overwhelming passion; Taisto's chronically unemployed status contrasts with Irmeli's work in multiple jobs (meter maid, hotel housekeeper, meat packer, and bank night guard); Taisto's attempt to retrieve his stolen money from the criminal ironically sends him to prison. As the film concludes to the lyrical tune of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" incongruously sung in Finnish, what emerges is a sharp, incisive, and playfully sinister depiction of modern-day existentialist angst, and the innate comedy of human existence.

© Acquarello 2001. All rights reserved.

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Tulitikkutehtaan tytto, 1989
[The Match Factory Girl]

OutinenAmid the mechanical din of the automated assembly line is the quiet despair of a lost soul. Her name is Iris (Kati Outinen), a dour, impassive young woman who oversees the labeling of matchbox packages. She performs her task with silent, methodical precision: removing duplicates, moistening unaffixed labels, tamping down curled edges. Riding home on a public bus, her time is spent reading vacuous romance novels. Her home life provides little comfort to her overwhelming sense of loneliness - her mother (Elina Salo) and stepfather (Esko Nikkar) sit transfixed in front of the television until she calls them to dinner, where table conversation proves to be equally nonexistent. After finishing her chores, Iris changes into her best clothes and goes to the local dance hall. The perennial wallflower, she patiently sits as the ladies around her are asked to dance, while she attempts to occupy her time by sipping beverages and listening to sentimental love songs. And so the sad ritual of Iris' alienated life progresses until one day when she impulsively decides to spend her wages on a red dress. Punished by her parents for squandering the rent money, Iris is ordered to return the dress, but instead, goes to a nightclub where she catches the eye of a reticent man named Arne (Vesa Vierikko). But as the camera captures alternating glances of Arne's abstracted composure and Iris' enraptured euphoria, it is evident that their union is not the great, consuming love that she longs for. When Arne's repeated attempts at severing their relationship become too blatant to ignore, Iris' desperation takes hold.

Aki Kaurismäki creates a wickedly incisive and fascinating dark comedy in The Match Factory Girl. In characterizing the unremarkable protagonist, Iris, with an inexpressive, Bressonian demeanor, Kaurismäki reflects the sustained, dispassionate cynicism and alienation of contemporary society. Furthermore, the pervasive silence, emotional callousness, and physical isolation reflect the innate loneliness and dehumanization of the soul. Unable to find connection in her cruel life, Iris lashes out at her oppressive environment with the same familiar detachment that has sustained her through disillusionment, abuse, humiliation, and heartbreak, and in the process, destroys all that is left of her dignity and humanity.

© Acquarello 2000. All rights reserved.

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Kauas pilvet karkaavat, 1996
[Drifting Clouds]

Outinen/VaananenAn early episode in Drifting Clouds encapsulates the wry, droll, yet affectionate fusion of pathos and comedy that has come to define Aki Kaurismäki's idiosyncratic cinema. A diligent and conscientious maître d' named Ilona (Kati Outinen) attends to the dwindling, aging clientele of a once popular, upscale postwar restaurant called Dubrovnik, before being summoned into the kitchen for an emergency. The head chef (Markku Peltola) has been found in a drunken state again, and is brandishing a knife in front of the staff to prevent confiscation of his alcohol. The burly porter, Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen), confronts the inebriated chef off camera and returns into frame clasping his bloodied, injured wrist from the scuffle. The slight and delicate Ilona then steps in (and off camera), a slap is heard, and Ilona reemerges in the foreground with the kitchen knife and two liquor bottles, followed by the dejected and visibly apologetic chef.

After work, Ilona's evening returns to a more familiar routine, as she boards an empty trolley car, kisses the driver - her husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen) - on the cheek, waits for him to return the trolley car to the station at the end of his shift, then the two drive home together. Arriving home, Lauri surprises her with a television set that he had purchased on an installment plan. Ilona frets over the additional incurred expense, remarking that they still have outstanding debt from the purchase of their couch and bookshelf, but Lauri reassures her that their expenses are under control, rationalizing "We'll manage it, four years. Then we can buy some books, too." However, their financial situation unexpectedly changes when the transportation department decides to restructure unprofitable routes within a month, and Lauri's position is selected for termination by a random low card draw. In an understatedly comical scene, Lauri redirects his frustration over his unemployment by complaining to the movie theater operator (who, coincidentally, is his sister) that the unnamed comedy that they had just seen was "unbearable rubbish", having ironically walked past the lobby posters of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (where Väänänen appears in the Helsinki episode), Robert Bresson's L'Argent, and Jean Vigo's L'Atalante. Laurie's opportunities for new employment become even more limited when his commercial driver's license is revoked after failing a hearing test, and in disappointment, gets drunk at a local bar. The couple is delivered yet another financial setback when the restaurant owner (Elina Salo) is forced to sell Dubrovnik to a restaurant conglomerate to repay her bank loan, and Ilona and the entire staff are given their severance notices. Encountering few, and increasingly bleak, prospects in a recession-afflicted Helsinki, the hapless couple find themselves struggling to return to the normalcy of their mundane and uneventful life.

Aki Kaurismäki presents an incisive, subversively funny, and compassionate portrait of love, marriage, and perseverance in Drifting Clouds. Using signature elements of deadpan humor, vivid color palette, kitschy mise-en-scene, and irony of situation, Kaurismäki reflects the disillusionment, crisis of identity, and existential angst of a country struggling to cope with the impact of a post Cold War-induced recession: the chef's alcohol abuse (which is amusingly commented on as an occupational hazard), Lauri's reluctant sale of his disproportionately oversized Buick automobile, and the restaurant owner's resigned acceptance of her failure to modernize. In an understated and poignant scene, an anxious and distracted Ilona immovably stands beside a picture of their lost young son, represented by a childhood photograph of the late actor and Kaurismäki regular, Matti Pellonpää (whose own weakness for alcohol contributed to his untimely death), for whom the film is dedicated. It is a reflection of the personal toll and sense of despair that pervades the film's bleak and oppressive urban landscape, and the inexorable bonds of love, hope, and community that galvanizes the human spirit in the face of overwhelming pain and insurmountable adversity.

© Acquarello 2002. All rights reserved.

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