The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is just so utterly, delightedly charming. The films tells the story of a young Finnish boxer – ‘the baker of Kokkola!’ – who can’t prepare properly for his big title match because he has just fallen in love. A surprising Un Certain Regard winner, the debut feature from Juho Kuosmanen is in no way just a trifle – the black and white 16mm cinematography is too substantive, the time period recreation too extensive. But at a time where so many Scandinavian films tell stories of war, upheaval, and social experiments – like Land of Mine, The Collective, The King’s Choice and so forth – it’s feels almost incredible that someone looked at the story of a middling boxer, and decided to put his life on screen. And made it so utterly, utterly charming.
It’s a true story. In 1962, the young Finnish boxer Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) fought the American featherweight champion of the world, Davey More, in a fight that really hasn’t made it into the history books. The film doesn’t really focus on the match either. Olli has bigger problems than planning strategy for the match, in that he is three kilos overweight to be a featherweight boxer. And also, he has fallen in love with his friend Raija – played wonderfully by Oona Airola. His trainer complains that he isn’t focused enough, while Olli thinks the whole thing is a circus and just want to train in place. And on and on it goes towards the fight. The big dramatic climax until then is the weigh-in, staged so suspensefully it’s almost ridiculous. Almost. So many things are almost ridiculous in this film, but it never becomes too much.
The cinematography is consistently amazing. Filmed in stark black and white on 16mm film that was never intended for theatrical use, the film has a look that isn’t really what films of the times looked like – at least not Scandinavian ones – but it’s more a retro-modernistic look, complete with beehive hairdo, modernistic architecture in the background, and period-correct advertising at a weird playground setting. The camera is mobile and fluid, rarely giving us an overview of things, but following its characters as they live through the madness of an international boxing title match, even one as quixotic as this.
Perhaps it’s because Jim Jarmusch is such a big fan of Aki Kaurismäki that he cameo’d in Leningrad Cowboys Go America, but I somehow think of Finnish cinema as somewhat Jarmusch’ian. As Olli travelled through the woods in his finest sixties clothing, with jazz playing on the soundtrack, it seemed almost as cool as something from Strangers in Paradise and Down by Law, which felt surprisingly Finnish. It’s not like the film is completely devoid of darkness – there are questions about the ‘communist’ sympathies of Olli from the sponsors, and once I learned that Davey More would be killed in a boxing match just a year later some of the framings of him seemed quite foreboding – but it’s a film with an almost ironic attitude towards Finnish history. It seems almost ridiculous that the ‘baker from Kokkola’ is on the verge of being a world champion, something Olli himself seems to know, even as he trains for the purpose. It’s not that Finland is a peripheral country on the world stage, every Scandinavian country is small and peripheral. But Finland sometimes seems as if it’s the only Scandinavian country that has realised this about itself, and seems almost content to be so. Perhaps it’s the language, unique as it is. Featherweight World Champion Olli Mäki just sounds different somehow.