A fantastic festive Finnish feature
Christmas movies in general are trite, saccharine affairs in which character’s learn the true meaning of Christmas, learn to love one another or rekindle belief in the cuddly Christmas figurehead that is Santa Claus. These movies generally toe this very safe, expected line and as a result, for every die hard we are bombarded with a steady stream of tinsel flecked, bright red and green shit such as Fred Claus, Deck the halls and The Santa Clause 3: The escape clause (no I didn’t make that one up). Rare exports: A Christmas Tale eschews typical Christmas movie tropes, and as such, falls into the category of great Christmas movies. Rather than regurgitating the tried and true commercial message purveyed by the cookie cutter Hollywood machine, Rare Exports delivers it’s own idiosyncratic viewpoint on the yuletide season, and manages to naturally weave an uplifting, unique Christmas tale, without putting Ryan Reynolds in a stupid festive jumper and having him compete with Danny Devito to see who has the best Christmas tree or some such shit.
The story follows Pietari, a young boy living in the secluded Korvatunturi mountains with his widowed father, who together share a rugged yet charming existence. On December first, Pietari and his mentor/bully stumble upon the nearby excavation site, and while returning home bicker over what exactly is going on up there, and taking the opportunity to intimidate his young companion, Jusso explains that the real Santa Claus is buried in the mountain and he is being retrieved, and while this seems ridiculous it is entirely fucking true! Pietari is convinced, and decides to research Santa Claus, and we get a delightful montage of his discovery that the jolly fat man is actually an ancient pagan deity, known for punishing naughty children, and as he put’s it while vainly attempting to explain the grim situation to his friends, the coca cola Santa is a lie, this is the real thing.
Anyone having seen the trailer for Rare Exports can be forgiven for being unsure of what to expect, other than “this is the evil Santa movie”, and the bare bones of that statement is essentially true. Personally I was expecting something of a slasher movie, but if I had to classify it, Rare Exports is mainly an action-comedy. Now before you conjure memories of every terrible action-comedy you’ve ever seen (like that nonsense about Arnold Schwarzenegger being pregnant), I would like to point out that here, the action is well paced and justified by a brilliant story while the comedic elements are zany, oftentimes fairly dark but above allfunny. Not to give too much away, but the sight of dozens of pudgy, bearded old men roaming around nude in the arctic tundra elicited ripples of barely contained giggling throughout my audience. This scene isn’t even played for laughs, it actually comes during a moment of fairly serious peril for our characters, but the film trusts the viewer to understand that this can be simultaneously funny and frightening, without the need for winking and nudging.
As an adaption of the rare exports short films (available here & here, I recommend them), the film is much more accessible to anyone who has actually seen these hilariously dark interpretations of the Father Christmas mythos, and there are plenty of
generous Easter eggs throughout the film which reference the source material, including a massive and unexpected epilogue which had the entire theater erupting in surprised delight and walking out with great beaming grins upon our faces. In the broadest terms, Rare Exports is probably classified as a piece of world cinema, but this probably does it something of an injustice, usually world cinema is reserved for the truly obtuse pretentious affairs which can only be appreciated by the latte sipping cinephile types. Rare Exports retains its Finnish sensibility, and has a microscopic budget in comparison to Western cinema, but delivers regardless on big ticket action sequences and remains entirely accessible to anyone unperturbed by subtitles.
The film itself has a really solid ensemble cast, with the standouts being the father and son duo of Pietari and his grizzled father Piiparinen. While it’s difficult to tell if I’m overstating the quality of acting on display here due to the subtitles, I can say with certainty that the main cast were consistently entertaining, playing the comedic moments well while the naturalistic performances made their
portrayal of rugged mens men living off the harsh Finnish wilderness all the more believable. Pietari and his father have several tender moments, and the dynamic of a struggling widowed father, steely eyed and thickly bearded raising a somewhat odd and sensitive boy plays out really well. Above all else, this is a coming of age story for young Pietari, who progresses from a timid boy too distressed to actually watch his father butchering meat into a rifle toting badass with the wherewithal to take charge of the situation and use his own courage and ingenuity to save the day, order the adults around and earn the respect of those around him.
The only real shortcoming is in the expository scenes, which are necessary but fairly clumsy. In order to move the story into it’s endgame, the adults have to come into possession of evil Santa, realise that he isn’t actually human and that they can sell him to recoup the financial losses that the excavation company caused for them, and arrange the sale. Creating a believable series of events to bring the characters to the correct conclusions is essential for the narrative, without doing so the movie would seriously suffer, but in practice the convoluted nature of events makes bringing the characters up to speed with the audience a bit of a trial for the filmmakers and the ten or so minutes that it takes drags somewhat. It’s not necessarily a bad sequence by any means, in fact it allows for some good humorous moments, being the only minor gripe I had probably says volumes.
Rare exports doesn’t just avoid the pitfalls of festive media, and the pratfalls of action comedies, it laughs in the face of convention and seems to revel in succeeding in areas which in other movies are routinely terrible. Child actors give great performances, a minuscule budget doesn’t impact on quality and by the end it leaves you with a genuine warm fuzzy feeling in your heart and a dewy eyed appreciation of the season. Sometimes Santa doesn’t need to work his merry magic to teach you the true meaning of Christmas, sometimes you just need to grow a pair and blow his fucking head off. Merry Christmas.