Cannes award winner The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki punches above its weight
“This is a true story – but don’t worry, you don’t need to know about it – even people in Finland don’t know this story,” says Finnish director Juho Kuosmanen as he introduces his film The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki.
“And it’s black and white, but some of it is quite funny – so you are allowed to laugh,” he adds, timidly massaging audience expectations ahead of its regional premiere on December 12 at the Dubai International Film Festival.
He might sound like a film student humbly introducing his first short, but the movie we are sitting down to is a critically acclaimed feature film that won the Un Certain Regard award at the Cannes Film Festival, where it had its world premiere in May. It has also been chosen as Finland’s official entry for next year’s Oscars, and a wide European release is planned in the spring.
Such a self-effacing demeanour is, I’m reliably told, a particularly Finnish affliction. It is certainly one Kuosmanen shares with his lead character.
His debut feature – titled Hymyilevä Mies in Finnish, which translates literally as Smiling Man – documents the preparations of real-life Finnish boxer Olli Mäki for a 1962 featherweight world-championship bout with American title-holder Davey Moore.
The fight marked the first time a title clash had been held in Finland, and working-class Mäki – whose nickname is “The Baker of Kokkola” – is ill-equipped to deal with either the media glare or endless round of handshakes with sponsors that comes with his role in the historic sporting circus.
Moreover, as he confesses to his bewildered trainer (and former champ), Elis Ask: “I think I’m in love.”
Whether his bashful new girlfriend Raija Mäki is a distraction or a source of essential support at this critical juncture is all a matter of perspective.
A native of Mäki’s hometown, Kuosmanen has been planning the movie for years. It finally arrives after 2010’s mid-length The Painting Sellers (Taulukauppiaat), which also had its premiere at Cannes, winning the Cinéfondation’s Premier Prix for new filmmakers.
“I was never interested in [Mäki] as a great boxer – although he was – I was interested in a boxer that doesn’t fit into that role,” says the director during a post-screening question-and-answer session.
“I watched a lot of boxing movies – maybe too many, I was a bit scared – and there are lots of good ones, but quite often it’s the same [story arc], just waiting to see if he wins or loses. I wasn’t interested in that part.”
A distinctive visual tone is set by the use of a rare 1960s film stock that was historically used for newsreel footage, which lends a grainy texture and period realism.
After buying up all the existing 16mm Kodak Tri-X film stock in Europe and North America, the manufacturers were called to produce a new batch specially to complete the film’s 32-day shoot.
The subtle and humane portrayals of the two characters at the film’s romantic core are remarkably both delivered by first-time feature leads.
A theatre actor by trade, Jarkko Lahti trained for more than four years in preparation for the role of Mäki – of whom he is a fan – even entering the ring for two amateur fights. His fish-out-of-water stoicism crumbles whenever he is on screen with the magnetic Oona Airola as Raija.
The filmmakers got the chance to meet their real-life counterparts.
“Raija thought there was nothing special in their story but, little by little, she started to trust me and, in the end, it was very collaborative,” says Kuosmanen.
“Of course it was scary to show the film to them, [but afterwards] Raija said it really felt like living those days again.”
It is not much of a spoiler to note that the movie closes poignantly with the young lovers walking arm-in-arm, passing an equally satisfied-looking elderly couple.
“Will we end up like them?” asks Raija.
“Of course,” answers Mäki.
The beaming elderly pair are none other than the real life Olli and Raija, in a fleeting cameo, which brings their stirring story right up to date.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki screens again at Vox Mall of the Emirates on December 14 at 2.15pm. Tickets cost Dh35. Visit www.dubaifilmfest.com for more details
Updated: December 14, 2016 04:00 AM