The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, a film based on the life of a legendary Finnish boxer, came out swinging in a bout with the big boys and girls in Cannes. Its win of the Un Certain Regard award came as no surprise to anybody who saw this engaging and visually striking first feature by Juho Kuosmanen.
It’s the summer of 1962, and Olli Mäki has a shot at the world championship title in featherweight boxing. He’s prepping for the big fight against the ruling world champion, American Davey Moore. Olli’s hard-nosed and ambitious trainer Elis (the Finnish Harrison Ford) pushes him to reach his fighting weight, and ferries him around to photo shoots, sponsor dinners, and other swanky publicity opportunities amid the bright lights of Helsinki. Olli has a chance to be Finland’s golden boy, of hitting the really big time – if only he could focus. But there are a couple of problems. Olli is a Communist baker from rural Finland, and he chafes under the pressure to become a star in this American-style show business machine. He’s a reluctant working-class hero. However, the biggest problem – at least from Elis’s point of view – is that Olli has fallen in love with a girl named Raija.
Olli’s fair lady Raija is played by charming newcomer Oona Airola. It’s easy to see why Olli would fall for her. She’s a hometown girl, easy-going and natural, in contrast to the icy, fur-clad blondes of Helsinki. Olli and Raija have a friendly and forthright relationship that reinforces Olli’s ideas about the important things in life. And now since he’s found her, he can’t concentrate on anything else, like training for the match.
The film is warm and funny, as Elis and the publicity hotshots thrust poor Olli into some hilarious situations in the run-up to the big fight. Shot in gorgeous 16mm, the film hearkens back to 1960s cinema-vérité (see right) classics. Its splendid opening travelling shot provides a stylish nod to American independent film-maker Jim Jarmusch or maybe director Juho Kuosman’s fellow Finn, Aki Kaurismäki.
Olli Mäki reminds us how important it is to forge our own path to happiness, regardless of outside expectations. We just need to keep an eye on our personal prize, and roll with the punches.