Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Kalle Kinnunen and Matti Rämö: Hymypoika. Dome Karukosken tie Lepsämästä Hollywoodiin (a book on the director Dome Karukoski)

Kalle Kinnunen and Matti Rämö: Hymypoika. Dome Karukosken tie Lepsämästä Hollywoodiin. [The Smiling Boy. The Way of Dome Karukoski from Lepsämä till Hollywood]. Helsinki: Otava, 2020. 352 p.

Beauty and the Bastard (Tyttö sinä olet tähti) (FI 2005)
The Home of Dark Butterflies (Tummien perhosten koti) (FI 2008)
Forbidden Fruit (Kielletty hedelmä) (FI 2009)
Lapland Odyssey (Napapiirin sankarit) (FI 2010)
Heart of a Lion (Leijonasydän) (FI 2013)
The Grump (Mielensäpahoittaja) (FI 2014)
Tom of Finland (FI 2017)
Tolkien (US 2019)

The title of the book is a reference to a tradition in Finnish schools since 1954. The Smiling Boy and the Smiling Girl busts are awards for fair and friendly behaviour in the school community.

The title is poignant and meaningful in many ways because Dome Karukoski was the victim of brutal school bullying for many years. He transcended this and became well-known for his sunny disposition and sportsmanship. The English idiom "a good sport" might come close to "hymypoika".

The brutal school years have been frankly discussed over the years by Dome Karukoski himself, who has become a champion in fighting school bullying. We know that it can injure and scar a person permanently. Teachers and school psychologists do nothing. They look the other way and perhaps perform some cosmetic action, and nothing changes. Usually the victim must move to another school, just like Dome Karukoski had to do.

The biography written by Kalle Kinnunen and Matti Rämö, two of the most experienced film journalists in Finland, is surprisingly candid in discussing this and other adversities that Karukoski has faced. The book is a tale of the spirit. A spirit that is indomitable. The word in Finnish is sisu, which means perseverance, grit, nerve, cojones, never giving up, going against all odds.

The book is a jungle adventure in the tough world of film production. Dome Karukoski got a flying start with his first six Finnish films which were all good, popular and well received by critics. More than that, Karukoski has launched careers of beloved actors who have become mainstays. Films directed by him have spawned sequels. Karukoski is equally at home in comedy and tragedy, and he knows that the best comedy is founded in tragedy.

The going gets tougher in international co-production. Ingmar Bergman warned Jörn Donner: "never make a film with more than one financer". Directors like Jim Jarmusch, Pedro Almodóvar and Aki Kaurismäki have solved this by establishing production companies of their own.

With co-production or as a part of a huge commercial juggernaut a dispiriting and soul-wrenching process may start where bit by bit you lose the inspiration which made you want to do the film in the first place, and the end result may turn out to be bland, predictable and without personality. But of course with edge and a tough skin you can survive in conditions like this and bring about personal work. It's much more difficult than it used to be in the classical studio era of film production.

Kalle Kinnunen and Matti Rämö present a wealth of fascinating minutieae about the concrete processes of film production from modest Finnish home market circumstances to Hollywood size budgeting. It is a rewarding nonfiction book with an emphasis on the external and practical side of movie-making. (I find incomprehensible the occasional penchant for an art vs. commerce dichotomy. From day one, since 125 years this year, art and commerce have walked hand in hand in the cinema: Edison, Lumière, Méliès, Paul, Dickson, Pathé, Gaumont, Nordisk, Griffith... ).

Dome Karukoski has had an original spirit and a personal voice from the start. His is a spirit of generosity. He understands young people (Tyttö sinä olet tähti) and old-timers (The Grump: the curmudgeon of this tale is a Finnish equivalent to About Schmidt). He goes deep into the phenomenon of Neo-Fascism (Heart of a Lion) but also into the international gay liberation (Tom of Finland). Napapiirin sankarit is a poignant comedy about marginalization beyond the Polar Circle in Lapland. The director himself and the writers of this book do not seem to appreciate very much Forbidden Fruit which to me is special: a tender and unexpected growing-up tale in a severe religious community. I predict that its value keeps growing, as does the value Dome Karukoski's oeuvre in general.

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