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Finding Beauty in the Mundane: Fallen Leaves (Kuolleet lehdet) at TIFF 2023

(Photo: TIFF)

Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki

Cast: Alma Pöysti, Jussi Vatanen

My family emigrated from Finland a little while after the Second World War. And while we still communicate with some distant family members that stayed behind, I have yet to visit the country and therefore don’t really have a true understanding of what life is like. Luckily my family ended up in a small, working class, northern Ontario town that was heavily populated by Finns. And with that they brought along their customs, traditions, cuisine, and mannerisms. Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film Fallen Leaves takes place in the working class neighbourhood of Kallio in Helsinki, and despite the setting being thousands of kilometres away from Toronto, the film had a feeling that myself and my fellow attendees of the screening found endearing, relatable, and absolutely hilarious.

Aki Kaurismäki in under 90 minutes brilliantly tells a tragicomedy love story between two blue-collar characters, Holappa, an alcoholic who struggles to maintain sobriety while on the job, and Ansa, a zero-hour contract worker who struggles to maintain a job for reasons that are usually out of her control. The two both live lonely, mundane, and hopeless lives, but after meeting by chance at a karaoke bar, they realise they may just be the perfect fit for each other. Kaurismäki once again utilises his style of Hopeful Cynicism by having the story take place during the Russia-Ukraine War. Constantly throughout the film, Ansa’s radio informs her of updates on recent missile strikes, invasions, battles, and every other ugly detail that comes with war. While this might seem a bit out of place in the movie to the average North American viewer, the war is of great worry to modern-day Finland with wounds that linger from the Second World War. Russia and Finland have a complicated relationship to say the least, and tensions between the two countries can be traced back to Finland’s independence and civil war back in 1917. In the past decade alone, Finland has been threatened with invasion by Russia if they were to ever join NATO. But since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, demand in Finland to join NATO has skyrocketed (as well as in Sweden) with both countries having since been fast tracked and joined NATO in the past year. However, with Fallen Leaves, Kaurismäki tells the viewer that while yes, the possibility of an invasion and another war in Finland is nerve wracking, it is best to simply change radio stations and listen to the music instead.

Speaking with other festival-goers, a lot of film buffs found this to be one of the funniest movies at TIFF this year. While there are some one line zingers, Kaurismaki doesn’t always spoon feed the jokes to the audience. His style of humour can usually be found by viewing the absurdities of daily life. He also isn’t afraid to make you laugh at those most morbid and dark of situations. A character getting hit by a tram leaving them in a coma, a front news headline about a catastrophic event leaving a dozen killed, and a character getting laid off, all of which are played off for laughs. And then there are the self-deprecating jokes littered all throughout. A screening of the 2019 zombie comedy, The Dead Don’t Die is described as a masterpiece akin to a Godard film, and a sarcastic comment about Finland making it to the World Cup final against Brazil both make fun of Finland’s lack of cinema taste and their mediocre football skills.

While other filmmakers tell Oscar-bait stories of a low-class individual that uses a hustle grindset to overcome all odds and make it to the top, Kaurismäki scoffs at the idea. The reality is, most of us will end up living boring and average lives. If Kaurismäki had it his way, Gandalf would never step foot in The Shire and challenge Bilbo Baggins to go on a live altering adventure, Bilbo would likely still be sitting on his bench smoking his pipe for three hours. And that’s not a terrible philosophy to embrace. For some of us, overcoming an alcohol addiction or maintaining a steady job, or simply finding someone you tolerate in this world is something that can be appreciated and is worthy of a story that can entertain you for 90 minutes of your time.

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