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The Finnish Touch - Interview with Aki
"You are five minutes late, ex-ac-tly," Aki Kaurismaki sneers down the line in his gruff, Nordic accent. Palms go clammy. Not a good start with Finland's leading film director, a tipple-loving eccentric who more or less single-handedly (with a little help from older brother Mika) props up the local industry, a crazy man who has made history by becoming the first Finn to be nominated for the best foreign film Oscar.
It clicks. He's having me on. That was a joke, right?
"Yes, supposed to be," he responds, deadpan.
The 45-year-old Finnish "auteur" is a master of black humour, of the understated, of characters who deliver lines in droll monotone, and punctuate them with intense silences, of storylines that go off on weird tangents, and focus on misfits. Speaking with him is uncannily similar to watching one of his films, hilarious, in a perverse kind of way.
Kaurismaki's latest production, the off-beat comedy The Man Without A Past, which opened in Melbourne yesterday, was the press corps' favorite for a Palm d'Or win at Cannes last year, but lost to Roman Polanski's more conventional bio-pic The Pianist. The Finn did take out the runner-up's Grand Prix, though, and best actress award for Kati Outinen, not to mention the unofficial Palm Dog, for best pooch performance by his pet, Tahti.
Still, an Oscar win of whatever sort would have to be high on a director's wish-list, right? Not Kaurismaki's. He is nothing if not ambivalent about his historic nomination. Pleased for his country's tiny film industry, he's unsettled by the thought of being gonged by a moneymaking machine he has judged moribund, indulgent, wasteful and overrun by talentless, overpaid brat actors (he has said of mega-star Bruce Willis: "totally unable to act and totally ugly").
A week before the American film industry's night of nights, the maverick Finn is feeling pretty nonplussed about the impending show-down.
"When do you print this article? They have to vote on Wednesday."
Post Wednesday, I assure.
"It's a bit complicated because if I tell the truth it sounds cruel and I don't want to be cruel. If I say it's the greatest thing in my life, I lie. Let's say, politely... this nomination does not mean for me as much as it might mean for some other director."
But in no time, and with no prodding, Kaurismaki drops the civil-speak and launches into a tirade about the dreadful gush that all too often overshadows Oscar night.
"They always thank God and the knees of their grandmother and the Cadillac and they start crying in the middle . . . and it's Hollywood kind of drama. It's very strange for a Finnish country boy."
He may be somewhat pacified to learn that this year's Oscar hopefuls have been warned to cut the waffle or risk an unceremonious carting off stage.
Mind you, he's got nothing against Cadillacs. Has one himself, drives it on Sunday, drove it for a decade between Finland and Portugal, where he lives half the year, escaping his native country's bitter cold, but these days the brakes are stuffed. He has 15 cars in all, leftovers from film shoots, the oldest a 1967 Chevrolet limousine.
His taste for vintage extends to Hollywood. "I love... the old Hollywood, but the modern one is just a dead rattlesnake that does not know it's dead. I am like a dog, always barking about Hollywood because with their power, they could make good films, but 60-year-old men are doing boy-scout level and boring violence. They are bloody amateurs," he scoffs.
Hollywood's penchant for the formulaic, the overblown and the schmaltzy sits at polar opposite to Kaurismaki's stripped-back, oddball style. His dialogue is terse, his characters laconic, irony their operative mode.
In The Man Without A Past, when the down-and-out lead whips up a romantic dinner for two consisting of canned peas and tough steak, his love interest asks "are you sure I can't help?" and is reassured "I think it's ruined already."
His prolific output over the past 22 years includes everything from wacky road movies such as '80s spoof Leningrad Cowboys Go America (which he rates as "the worst film in the history of cinema, unless you count Sylvester Stallone films") adaptations of literary classics such as Crime and Punishment, and stories about society's underclass, such as Drifting Clouds.
"I prefer to make deep impact for one spectator than make impact for two hours for a million people. If I would get huge audiences for one of my films I think I would have failed."
By his own reckoning, Kaurismaki's latest may be a dud. Typically off-centre, it is, nonetheless, a crowd-pleaser. Even Kaurismaki admits that this time he tried to make it easy on the audience, penance of sorts for his previous film, which was black and white and silent.
The Man Without A Past is the story of a man who is beaten to death by a gang of thugs, comes back to life, and conveniently can't recall a thing about of his previous, flawed existence. Homeless, penniless and devoid of identity, he is taken in by a community of indigents living in disused shipping containers and trash cans. A tale about powerlessness in the face of the law, the state, and the corporation, it is, in the end, a feelgood film about love and solidarity.
Although it unravels like a fairytale, the film has its roots in reality. It was set in a true-to-life shanty town and the film's extras were the homeless.
Kaurismaki's enduring desire to document the lives of those living on society's edge is influenced in part from his own experiences. He knows what it is to be hungry and homeless.
"I had some years when I only had a sleeping bag. So I like losers. I am a loser myself."