Wednesday, 15 December 2010
'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale' review:
There is something Spielbergian about Finnish horror-comedy 'Rare Exports'. The fact that the action surrounds a mountain brings to mind 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', whilst the film's child protagonist Pietari (Onni Tommila) is reminiscent of the child from... well just about every family movie the director has ever made. However, the films that it most resembles from the Spielberg stable are not those he directed, but those anarchic and violent family films he produced in the mid-80s: 'The Goonies' and 'Gremlins'.
As with 'Gremlins', in the UK 'Rare Exports' has been hit with a '15' certificate. Which is a shame because, although there is a little swearing (though not as much as the apparently kiddy-friendly 'The King's Speech' which got a '12A'), some violence and some nudity, 'Rare Exports' is essentially a children's story. It is a coming of age tale which sees Pietari making the gradual change from a scared boy to a young man. It has a dark aesthetic and a macabre sense of humour, but nothing that would be out of place in the world of those Spielberg films mentioned. Like the title suggests, it is also a rare phenomenon: a good Christmas movie.
'Rare Exports' is the first feature film by Jalmari Helander, who has expanded on an idea which he first gave life to in a couple of short films: 'Rare Exports Inc.' (2003) and 'Rare Exports: The Official Safety Instructions' (2005). The film is a sort of prequel to those shorts, which took a comical look at how hunters in Lapland track down and capture wild and dangerous Father Christmases in order to train them for safe export around the world. Many of the original cast return for the feature, which shows how they originally discover the homicidal, rampaging Santas after they are unearthed from an icy tomb deep within the Korvatunturi mountains by a team of American archaeologists.
As with the short films, Santa Claus murders whoever he suspects is naughty. He also, in a twisted re-imagining of the folklore, eats little children - a fact which young Pietari learns from some old books and which terrifies him into taking precautions, including fashioning his distinctive suit of padded armour. When the boys and girls of the village go missing, it is up to the boy and his father, a reindeer hunter, to rescue them. There is a father-son subplot at work here, but unlike that in 'Tron: Legacy', it feels like more than a functionary narrative device. The relationship between Pietari and his father (Rauno played by Jorma Tommila) is in many ways the film's real focal point, with two thirds of 'Rare Exports' focusing on the way they interact with one another and featuring very little action. What action there is takes place in the final twenty minutes and is brilliantly exciting and funny.
'Rare Exports' has been likened to the early work of Tim Burton and it isn't difficult to see why with the film feeling like a dark, contemporary fable in a similar vein to 'Edward Scissorhands'. In the illustrations of ancient Santas devouring children, it is also possible to detect traces of Guillermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth'. Yet Helander's preference for humour which combines the sinister and the silly is more like something out of a Roald Dahl book. In fact the dishevelled Santas themselves, rake thin and with unkempt beards, look like Quentin Blake illustrations come to life.
The concept of these wild 90 year-old men running around the woods ripping people to shreds is the stuff of black comedy in itself but Helander adds to this some brilliantly funny ideas which help to elevate 'Rare Exports' above being another exploitative horror-comedy: Santas can be distracted by feeding them freshly baked ginger bread cookies; among the things they consider naughty (as well as the likes of smoking, drinking and swearing) is people who haven't washed behind their ears; and in order to ward off Santa, Pietari sellotapes and then staples shut the penultimate door on his advent calender. There are loads of other great ideas which I won't spoil here and also some very funny lines of faux action movie dialogue.
'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale' is practically begging to become a cult seasonal favourite. If it were Spielberg produced and directed by Joe Dante then it would probably have already found that audience - one that might, sadly, be excluded by the film's being in the Finnish language (notoriously one of Europe's least widely spoken and least accessible tongues). It will also be limited by the fact that some of its content (which includes matter of fact nudity as a Santa takes a shower) will prevent children from being able to see it in more conservative countries like the UK, which is a pity.
It's admittedly not a film for very young children, but it certainly has more appeal for the under-15 crowd than 'The King's Speech' and is arguably less violent than a lot of recent "tweenage" blockbusters which boast lower age ratings. And whilst the likes of Michael Bay's 'Transformers' series objectify women and indulge in horrible racial stereotyping for a '12A' audience, 'Rare Exports' is actually a pretty savoury story about a young Finnish boy growing up, abandoning his tattered teddy bear and proving that he has more courage than his bullying peers. What's wrong with that? Don't bother to ask the increasingly inconsistant likes of the BBFC.
'Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale' is out now in the UK and playing at the Duke of Yoir's Picturehouse in Brighton. It is rated '15' by the BBFC.