From Cinema Scope #67 (Summer 2016)
By Jason Anderson
Of all the fleet-footed scenes in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, the one that best demonstrates the virtues of Juho Kuosmanen’s debut feature may be the first press conference sequence. Though the event’s ostensible purpose is to hype the fight that takes place at the tail end of Kuosmanen’s Un Certain Regard prizewinner, it shows that the most crucial conflicts and concerns here have little to do with the match: a featherweight bout between Finnish upstart Olli Mäki and American champion Davey Moore that took place in Helsinki in 1962. Perfectly attuned to the low-key nature of Kuosmanen’s pugilist protagonist (played by Jarkko Lahti), the scene also provides ample proof of the deftness of the film’s humour, the sharpness of its characters, and the sweetness of its disposition, as well as the director’s consistent ability to subvert the hoariest tropes of the boxing flick while still exploiting them to his advantage.
The most obvious of these tropes is the fraught dynamic between a fighter and his manager—ideally, he’s a crusty Burgess Meredith type but a more maniacal James-Woods-in-Diggstown pitchman will do. For Olli, that man is Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), a former boxer who talks a big game as he tries to transform his charge into a sports hero worthy of a nation’s adoration. (That process includes downplaying the fact that Olli’s a communist to the fight’s high-roller financial backers.) Though Olli can be receptive to his manager’s blustery tactics—especially when the fighter is goaded into a rare display of genuine aggression against his sparring partner—it’s clear that things will not go according to plan well before the American champ arrives. Olli is part of his greeting party at the airport, where Moore is bestowed with the customary bouquet of flowers and a kiss for the cameras from a statuesque blonde. (That so many women tower over the featherweight fighters may be the film’s best running gag.)
During the meeting with the press, Olli looks across the room and exchanges a bashful smile with Raija (Oona Airola), the girlfriend who’s accompanied him on the trip to Helsinki and who’s had a similarly wide-eyed reaction to the pre-fight rigmarole and big-city excitement. The brief moment of connection throws Olli, such that he’s unable to muster up the show of confidence that Elis believes the occasion demands.
Elis hustles him out of the room shortly thereafter. “Olli, you have to get a grip,” he tells him.
“I think I’m in love,” says the boxer, still reeling from the realization. His expression betrays a depth and fullness of emotion that is most definitely a professional liability. Whatever the eye of the tiger is supposed to look like, this isn’t it.
Elis is understandably affronted. “You know it’s a shitty time to fall in love,” he grumbles. “Pull yourself together!”
Of course, Olli has as much chance of developing any kind of ruthless self-discipline as he does of exhibiting the all-consuming drive and killer instinct for #winning that distinguish true hall of famers. Though the real Olli Mäki did indeed consider the day of the match the happiest of his life, that’s because it was also the day he exchanged engagement rings with Raija. It’s unsurprising to learn that in his later sporting career, he developed a reputation for never wanting to knock out his opponents if he felt like he’d already won. (Scandinavia’s most famous boxing champion, Ingmar Johansson, was famed for having the same gentlemanly demeanour.) No wonder this softie’s story was so fascinating to Kuosmanen—here was a lover who happened to be a fighter, a paradox that the world rarely tolerates.
Nor do sports dramas usually have much use for athletes who express little interest in worldly victories since they know that achieving the hopes and expectations of others won’t generate true happiness. One of the great delights about Kuosmanen’s film lies in watching it work against that grain and tweak the genre trappings to suit not just the man at its centre but everyone else caught up in this inevitably clumsy effort to mount an American-sized sports spectacular in sleepy early-’60s Finland.
The film’s satirical edge is most evident in Olli and Elis’ hilariously awkward attempts to act natural and/or convincingly formidable before the cameras of a documentary film crew that the manager has enlisted. Elsewhere, Kuosmanen uses subtler means to highlight his story’s core dilemma, which is contending with the gap that can open up between our public roles and pressures and the more personal dreams and desires that may lead us in a very different direction. And for all of the comedic mileage that Kuosmanen gets out of the premise of a love-struck boxer who loses interest in the biggest fight of his career, the director does not treat the character’s crisis lightly, a decision that lends some force to a film that may have otherwise been stuck in the featherweight category.
Kuosmanen has admitted that he connected with his subject’s worries about blowing a huge opportunity, having been guaranteed a spot for his debut feature in Cannes’ Official Selection after winning the top prize with his Cinefondation entry The Painting Sellers in 2010. Since he had no prior interest in period films or boxing, the idea of making a film about Maki was understandably implausible to him. Yet the subject—which the filmmaker explored with the participation of Mäki and his wife Raija, who make a lovely cameo in the film’s final sequence—proved to be a rich one.
The film harmonizes those historical elements with a savvy take on the boxing world that’s rooted in such reference points as Joyce Carol Oates’ essays on the sport and Hollywood boxing dramas like Body and Soul (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). Making effective use of handheld cameras and the world’s dwindling supply of Kodak Tri-X black-and-white film stock—the company actually agreed to manufacture more when Kuosmanen’s stash ran out—Kuosmanen also sought to evoke the look and feel of cinéma vérité films from the era, including Jerzy Skolimowski’s early documentary Boxing (1961). (An amateur boxer, Skolimowski showed off his prowess in Andrei Wajda’s Innocent Sorcerers .)
Like many of those doc makers, Kuosmanen displays a sharp eye when it comes to the sport’s more in-between or backstage moments, like the ritual of the weigh-in and the tending to busted-up hands and blistered feet. The presentation of the climactic fight has a welcome absence of ostentation, and the training sessions—which are really the meat and potatoes of the modern boxing flick, as Ryan Coogler demonstrated so ably in Creed (2015)—go largely ignored except for one virtuosic shot that follows Olli as he leaves a lakeside cottage, strips down to show his muscled physique, and dives into the frigid waters. Even then, the display of machismo is cleverly undermined, Kuosmanen abruptly cutting to Olli hunched over a toilet with his fingers down his throat. (The vomiting is part of his efforts to reach the too-low weight class that Elis put him in.)
Viewers who come under the apprehension that this is any kind of sports film are bound to be thrown by the wryly funny, mild-mannered yet deeply felt movie they find here. Much like the movie’s closest antecedents—Ermanno Olmi’s Il Posto (1961) and Otar Iosselliani’s Falling Leaves (1966)—The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki succeeds first and foremost as a bittersweet comedy about a gentle-hearted small-town lad who seems equally bewildered by the ways of the world and by the tumults of first love. No one who’s ever felt just as baffled can blame him for not being able to keep his head in the game.