Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, based on a series of his short films, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale takes place on the eve of Christmas in northern Finland, Korvatunturi mountains, where an archaeological dig may have unearthed the real Santa Claus. However, this may not be the plump, white-bearded Santa Claus most are familiar with, but the much meaner creature from Finnish folklore. Young Pietari and his father Rauno, a reindeer hunter/butcher by trade, capture the old man/creature and attempt to sell him to the company sponsoring the dig. Meanwhile, all the local children begin to mysteriously disappear while Santa's "elves" will stop at nothing to free their fearless leader from captivity.
From the beginning, I really liked the mood of this film. Admittedly, I haven't seen any of the short films that Helander had made before this. Throughout this film, there's a sense of tension and mystery, but with good amount of dry humor thrown in. Ever since the dig, strange things begin to happen in the small town--electrical objects are stolen and children disappear. I really liked how the film never reveals things too soon, but allows the story to progressively present itself. While most of the film is in Finnish, there are occasional English speakers in the film, who play their parts with just the right amount of over-the-top gusto.
The film works similarly to a horror film, with well-timed pacing and build-up, and perhaps finally the eventual uncovering of the mysterious, impending horror. With harsh language, dark humor, some gore, frontal nudity (of old men), and some creepy moments, it's certainly not for little children (Think Pan's Labyrinth). Director Jalmari Helander confidently balances the horror and the humor of this tale expertly. The horror elements, while mostly tongue-in-cheek, are there, but the film is closer to a thriller, and the humor is sharp. I'm reminded of Bong Joon-Ho's The Host. As such, this film shares many elements of a monster movie, but it isn't really about the monster—it's the characters and their relationships with each other. The story unfolds in a diabolically clever way, which works in conjunction with its occasionally labored build-up. Advertisement
A good amount of the film's focus is on the relationship between Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his father, Rauno (Jorma Tommila), who operates a bankrupted reindeer slaughterhouse. Rauno, who appears to be a widower, tends to be very protective of Pietari and often keeps many things to himself. Onni Tommila plays the young Pietari with much confidence, allowing us to see this strange, surrounding world from his point of view. Jorma Tommila is excellent as the loving father, played with a realistic blend of emotion, restraint, and subtlety.
The icy, white, wintery locale of this film is gorgeous and one can tell that there has been a good amount of production value involved, while avoiding looking glossy or fake. There's good attention to small details that keeps things feeling real. The orange lights, the rich, saturated colors of reds and blues play off and contrast with the snow marvelously. And, firey explosions certainly look great in the snow. The film's pumping soundtrack brings good amount of tension and weight, almost with a hint of that Danny Elfman/Tim Burton-like fantasy atmosphere. Still, the style of the film is generally realistic, and even if very strange, surreal things do happen, the feel of it is not as aesthetically Gothic as, let's say, a Burton film.
While the thematic elements of the film aren't anything new, I loved the film's original take on the Santa story. It doesn't ever feel like a lazy "wouldn't it be cool if
" gimmick, but there's actual weight to the story. It isn't trying to redefine something, but it is simply telling a story which happens to be quite strange. Strange it is, indeed
.but it feels wholly original.
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