Eastern Memories / G. J. Ramstedtin maailma

Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen’s Eastern Memories is a great example to prove that telling a story of a linguist can result in a beautifully shot informative and intriguing motion picture. The film is based on Finland Swedish diplomat and linguist Gustaf John Ramstedt (G. J. Ramstedt) notes who travelled across Asia first to study the Mongolian language and then to serve as a diplomat to Finland in Japan.

Looking at simply the title Eastern Memories, one might wonder what this has to do with the North and Nordic cinema. However, a few seconds in, the clouds disperse and the sky clears out, and the famous Finland Swedish linguist G. J. Ramstedt is introduced. During his course of existence, he spent numerous years in Asia, first in Mongolia to do research on the Mongolian language, and then in Japan to become the chargé d’affaires (“an official who takes the place of an ambassador in a foreign country when he or she is away” – Oxford Dictionaries) to Finland there. The landscape of modern Mongolia and Japan (and China) is depicted while the narrator as Ramstedt tells the stories of the past. So the viewers are invited to travel across space and time as well as to explore the unknown and the known with Ramstedt and the people passing by. There are so many Eastern memories to tell and hear…

Eastern Memories is a road movie. As it is based on Ramstedt’s diaries, the events are told in linear, chronological progression, but with a twist. What Niklas Kullström and Martti Kaartinen do brilliantly is that they embrace the written material from the past and produce a perfect harmony by adding the visuals shot in the present. This technique results in a relaxing atmosphere, and it elevates the mood to create nostalgia while present days’ moments break the rhythm and let us breathe and draw parallels between past and present – to make sense of the contrast between them and the past’s influence on the present. It feels like all the components are placed in a Petri dish and examined through the lenses of a video camera and the narration gives the guidance how to look at things, what to pay attention to, and why to spend time on them.

Mainly the scenery but even the urban landscapes have the potential to fuel engagement and excitement. The vast Mongolian wilderness is captured at both the beginning and the ending of the film forming a framework. Although the industrialisation reached Mongolia decades ago during the time period when the Soviet Union was going strong, the countryside untouched areas still contribute to the image of Mongolia. This way the film-makers can easily talk about universal issues such as the struggle between rural and urban areas, which is of great significance not only in Mongolia but elsewhere. After Mongolia, following Remstedt, Kullström and Kaartinen end up in a metropolitan named Tokyo with a brief detour to Shanghai. These cities are home for millions of people and the demarcation of the residents of Tokyo enhanced by architecture is discussed in more detail by shedding more light on the notion and practice of (private) ownership. Is one really capable of feeling home in a tiny flat in the Nakagin Capsule Tower designed by Kisho Kurokawa, one of the founders of the Japanese Metabolist Movement? That’s one of the questions asked in the film.

While, in a way, Eastern Memories re-enacts the life-changing moments of Ramstedt and people affiliated with him, the stories go beyond him and the variants of human habitats and the diversity of traditions and ideologies as well as gaining and retaining power occupy the centre. The acclaimed Finland Swedish linguist and diplomat, who is remembered and respected in both his native Finland and in Mongolia, comes across only as an excuse to tell stories from the East that barely reach the Western audience. The film undeniably demonstrates that the world is a small place and all the dots are somehow connected, whether it is because of the Soviet or Chinese influence or something else. So many nuanced tales are discussed, a large number of less known facts mentioned and in every minute something new is introduced and explained about Finland, Russia, Mongolia, Japan or other parts of the world – something that was written on the pages of a textbook and was part of a collective memory at a certain part of the world but has not reached the mainstream yet.

Kullström and Kaartinen’s piece is an engaging motion picture, but the quality in terms of the content of the first segment focusing on Ramstedt’s travel in Mongolia and second on the ones in Japan is not quite equal. Probably more thoughts were invested in the first than the second part. Nevertheless, the technicality of the film, including the sound design, cinematography, etc., showcases excellence. The title is Eastern Memories, but the universality of the film cannot and must not be denied.

Barbara Majsa

Barbara is a journalist, editor and film critic. She usually does interviews with film-makers, artists, designers, and writes about cinema, design and books.