Rare Exports: A Christmas Story
Director: Jalmari Helander
Writers: Jalmari Helander, Juuso Helander, Petri Jokiranta, and Sami Parkkinen.
Cast: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Tommi Korpela, Rauno Juvonen, Per Christian Ellefsen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi
Rarely has there existed a greater gap between a film's concept/premise and it's execution, than the one that exists in Rare Exports: A Christmas Story. For here in this film we have an absolutely brilliant idea that sours during a turgid middle and then just when things look like they're about to kick into high gear, the blink and you'll miss it climax flashes by quicker than the speed Santa needs to deliver presents to every good little boy, girl, and non-binary gender kid.
When Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his friend Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) overhear the plans of an eccentric billionaire Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen) to dig up the grave of the "real" Santa Claus, Pietari hits the books to dig up the story behind the legend. What he finds is that the original Santa Clause was a frightening creature, and the modern holly, jolly version is an invention of retail outlets and soft drink makers. (Sidenote: with regards to Finnish mythology, this actually has a historical basis.) Soon afterwards, the family Reindeer herd is found dead and eaten, while Pietari spots mysterious footprints on the rooftop of their home. When the locals wake up on Christmas day, they find their homes burglarized and their children missing. Even more worrisome, Pietari's father finds a naked man dead in an illegal wolf trap he had set. However, when it is discovered that the stranger is still alive, the possibility is raised that this could be the real Santa Clause of ancient legend.
Suspense is a delicate balancing act. It requires that the filmmakers show somethings and hide others. I am not the worlds biggest fan of Jaws but the tactic of showing as little of the big bad as possible on screen is a popular and effective for a reason. Generating really gut wrenching suspense also requires some degree of attachment with the characters. Nothing too deep, but there needs to be something. With regards to Rare Exports, the filmmakers took the lesson of Jaws a little too much to heart, showing us too little, too late. There's also the issue of once the captured "Santa" shows up, he spends too much time lying around lethargically to feel like much of a threat.
Furthermore, none of the characters are terribly well developed. Outside of Pietari and his father, I'm not sure it's fair to say that any of the characters even rise to the level of caricature, as that would require them to have personalities. What we have here are more like stick figures that are primarily on hand to do whatever it is the script requires.
Even more problematic is the way the bizare way the characters react to the weirdness of Christmas Day. And by bizarre, I mean in the way in which the adults (at least the ones we are shown) show far more concern over some missing burlap bags and a hair dryer, than they do over their missing children. I am not joking, there is literally a scene that plays out approximately as follows:
Adult Character: "Oh noes, all our radiators have been stolen! We're all going to DIE!"
Other Adult: "And they took every burlap bag! Now all our potatoes are naked and cold! WAH!"
Another Adult: "They took my hairdryer! That's premo tech in Russia! LETS INVADE!"
Pietari: "Uh where's Juuso? I just found this weird creepy doll in his bed."
Adult: "He's probably out chasing girls. Don't bother us with trivialities!"
I am not a parent, but if I woke up to find my house broken into, my stuff taken, and my kids bed containing only a creepy doll, I doubt my reaction would be "oh no! Who stole my burlap bags!" Do Finnish facebook pages feature numerous pictures of hairdryers with captions like "Missing since April. Last seen in Bathroom. Large reward for information leading to return of, + bonus if power cord is still intact."? If the characters cannot care about their missing kids, why should I?
Getting back to the line about Juuso "being out chasing girls", the context troubles me for several reasons. One, because the actor who plays Juuso does not appear to be much older than 10 years of age.. Two, outside of that reference (and another to the owner of the hairdryer) it appears as if no females exist in the films universe. That's right folks, apparently universal heterosexuality can still exist and be applied to pre-teens in a man only world. Do NOT ask me to come up with an explanation for this.
When the Bechdel test was first developed, it was to illustrate how female characters exist in fictional narratives only in relation to male characters. In Rare Exports they simply appear not to exist, and given the two lines referenced, they're still reduced to sex objects or as seen solely through their relationships to freaking hairdryers. I don't think this is a case of all of the filmmakers being raging misogynists or even particularly sexist, I think it's more of a glaring oversight, like so many other glaring oversights that exist in the film.
One glaring oversight would be the fact that Pietari's mom is never referenced, ever. Did she die? Leave the country? Have an affair? Get gender reassignment surgery and is now one of the indistinguishable male characters that his dad hangs out with? The fact that there are only male character makes it feel like the whole film should be ripe for queering, but it isn't. It's just another situation which the filmmakers failed to develop properly.
Overall, it is difficult to describe just how frustrating it is to watch a movie like Rare Exports, which starts out strong with a highly promising premise, only to quickly devolve into tedium. This is not a bad movie, nor is it trying to be a "so-bad-it's good" type of projects, as one might think given the premise. There is some gorgeous cinematography of frozen mountain landscapes and there are times when the project manages to develop a subtle, yet powerful, hypnotic quality. But a series of poor choices, such as an almost complete lack of explanation for certain characters motives, causes the film to stall and freeze more thoroughly then the frozen tundra that the story is set in. Why is the industrialist/scientist/entrepreneur trying to dig up Santa Claus anyways? How did he come by the knowledge of where the "real" Santa Claus was buried and why is he so convinced that the legend is true to begin with? What is his backstory?
For those who like off beat pictures with dark humor, there are worse options out there. Otherwise, this is one sleeping Santa that should rarely be exported.
2 and 1/2 stars out of 4.
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