Friday, April 13, 2012

Härmä / Once Upon a Time in the North

FI 2012. PC: Yellow Film & TV. P: Olli Haikka, Jarkko Hentula. D+SC: JP Siili. DP: Jani Kumpulainen. AD: Päivi Kettunen. Cost. Anu Pirilä. Makeup: Riikka Virtanen. M: Tuomas Kantelinen. Original songs by Lauri Tähkä: "Aina mun ääneni raitilla kuuluu", "Vaikkei joukosta näjy", "Minä oon tällanen koijarirenttu", "Pikkunen ja häjy", "On mulla suurta syräntä", "Sille omalle kullalleni", "Voi ku sen viärehen viälä pääsis", "Niin ottasin omakseni". S: Juha Hakanen. ED: Aleksi Raij. Loc: Kauhava. C: Lauri Tilkanen (Matti Välitalo), Mikko Leppilampi (Esko Välitalo), Pamela Tola (Aino Kantola), Esko Salminen (Antti Välitalo), Lena Meriläinen (the mistress of Välitalo), Eero Milonoff (häjy / knifeslinger Koskela), Aku Hirviniemi (Kalle, Matti's best friend), Kari Hietalahti (vallesmanni / sheriff), Pirkka-Pekka Petelius (Kustaa, notary), Taneli Mäkelä (Sakari Kantola), Olavi Uusivirta (häjy / knifeslinger), Harri J. Rantala, Pia Latomäki, Hennariikka Laaksola, Satu Helena Mikkelinen, Hannu Rantala, Tuomas Rudanko. 128 min. Distributed by Finnkino with Swedish subtitles by Markus Karjalainen. Viewed at Kinopalatsi 5, Helsinki, 13 April 2012.

Härmä belongs to the Finnish genre of Pohjanmaa movies, into its most mythical current about the "häjyt" (the badmen) or "puukkojunkkarit" (the knifeslingers) who were the scourge of Southern Pohjanmaa in the 19th century, most devastatingly until ca 1870. Pohjanmaa is a province of great plains and rivers on the west coast of Finland.

Pohjanmaa movies and lumberjack movies have been sometimes compared with Westerns. The heyday of the badmen ended with the great famine of 1867-1868, memorably described by Santeri Alkio in his novels Puukkojunkkarit [The Knifeslingers] and Murtavia voimia [Winds of Change]. At the same time the favourite age of Westerns, the decades after the 1860-1865 Civil War, started.

JP Siili tunes boldly into a grand, dramatic genre mode. Härmä is not a genre pastiche. It is a modern genre movie, and from familiar elements JP Siili has created an original work.

Härmä is the first Pohjanmaa movie which starts with tar manufacture. During the era of the tall ships Finland belonged to the leading producers of tar, but when metal ships became dominant, tar production collapsed, a social background to the knifeslinger phenomenon: the wealth that had been the basis for a big way of life was vanishing, and some frustrated sons tried to command awe through violent rampage.

Härmä is a family drama. The ageing master of the farm Antti Välitalo (Esko Salminen) observes with dismay that his oldest son Esko (Mikko Leppilampi) has become a no good scoundrel and writes a controversial will bequeathing the farm to his younger son Matti (Lauri Tilkanen). Esko murders his father, seizes both copies of the will, banishes Matti, destroys by arson the tar storage of his neighbour Sakari Kantola (Taneli Mäkelä) and pressures his daughter Aino (Pamela Tola), Matti's fiancée, to become his. Follows another example of the cinema's obsession with the cancelled wedding. The climax of the movie is a blood wedding, crashed by Matti, and heading to a knife duel between the brothers. The whole village, who has had enough of Esko's rampage, has come to support Matti.

The screening was well attended, and there was a feeling of intensive concentration. I don't know what a Pohjanmaa expert would say about period authenticity, but there is a vigour and an energy in the narrative, with perhaps one thrilling episode too many. The Pohjanmaa dialects are largely missing in the dialogue.

I like the new Pohjanmaa songs written by Lauri Tähkä. The performances are successful, and the golden boy Mikko Leppilampi is interestingly cast against type as the king of the badmen.

We launch next month a Pohjanmaa retrospective in Cinema Orion, the first of its kind, with 16 movies. My favourites include Härmästä poikia kymmenen (the best of the knifeslinger movies), Varaventtiili, and Pieni pyhiinvaellus. Härmä is too new to be in it, but deserves immediately a worthy place in the tradition.

Green is the most difficult colour. In nature it's always beautiful, but man-made green usually fails. Green is also my favourite colour, and green painted by me also usually fails. One of the secrets of green is that green in nature is not really one colour but many. Look at a tree, and you see dozens of shades of green. It is a challenge for colour photography. In digital, green still usually looks either too gray and cold or too garish. Green is the dominant colour in Härmä, and it looks mercilessly electric, uniform and colourized. Meanwhile, the composition, using the CinemaScope dimensions of the great plains, is dynamic and effective.

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