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Finding love and anarchy at Helsinki film festival

One director subverts Finland's relationship with the great outdoors. Another unleashes a foul-mouthed teen on unsuspecting audiences. A third tackles the complexities of family jealousy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

One director subverts Finland's relationship with the great outdoors. Another unleashes a foul-mouthed teen on unsuspecting audiences. A third tackles the complexities of family jealousy.

The range of homegrown features at this year's Helsinki International Film Festival is a testament to Finland's hardy film industry which seems to survive despite the challenges of language, funding and small audience size.

Nordic neighbors Sweden and Denmark have left a mark in cinema history through filmmakers including Lars von Trier and Ingmar Bergman and actors like Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Max von Sydow. But even the most ardent film buffs might be pressed to name a Finnish film personality beyond director Aki Kaurismaki, whose minimalistic and often bleak movies have garnered a cult following in the U.S.

"This is a very small country, so we produce only like 15-20 long features every year so that's very small," festival chairman Pekka Lanerva said.

The Helsinki International Film Festival started Thursday and runs through Sept. 25, at locations across the city. Now in its 24th year, it was originally conceived as a way to bring Asian film to a Finnish audience starved of foreign features.

It has grown since then, and this year, under the banner "Love and Anarchy," is showing films from Asia, the Balkans and Bollywood, and more mainstream fare like Pedro Almodovar's "The Skin I Live In" and the Ryan Gosling star vehicle "Drive."

This year's gala film will be director Joona Tena's "Body of Water," a psychological thriller which uses Finland's remote wilderness as one of the central characters. Protagonist Julia and her child leave their comfortable city existence behind and go to the countryside to save a local lake.

"There's this uneasiness for city people about the solitude and complete silence you can find in the forest or somewhere far away from the city," the 46-year-old Tena said.

Usually, a summer vacation to the country cottage is a much-loved experience for many Finns. However, Tena exploits the dark foreboding of the forest and eerie silence of the lake to great effect, building Julia's unease, as the action is interwoven with local fairy tale mythology.

"I spent most of my life in Helsinki or sometimes in the bigger cities and it's even for me quite frightening where you can go to a place and hear no noises," Tena explains.

A very different local film being screened this year is Elias Koskimies' "Dirty Bomb," which has its roots in the dizzying dialogue of British hits like "In The Loop" and "Four Lions" — films that Koskimies admires for their quirky take on life.

"My dialogue is quite fast and my rhythm is quite fast," he says. "And then I've always been a fan of, you know, weirdness."

"Dirty Bomb" tells the story of Mirccu, a public relations executive with one last chance to prove herself, but faced with the client from hell — a demanding, precocious 15-year-old teen star.

The cast of oddball characters with larger than life personalities defines Koskimies' style. "The thing is if you do something weird and strange it's not good if you force that to your movie, it has to come very naturally," he says.

The showcase venue at the Helsinki festival is the 1930s Bio Rex cinema in downtown Helsinki, a cultural beacon in the city, known for showing offbeat films.

Zaida Bergroth's film "The Good Son" was recently shown at the Toronto Film Festival, the first time it had been screened outside Finland.

The film tells the story of actress Leila who flees to a summer house after a disastrous premier. Like Tena's "Body of Water," much of the action in "The Good Son" takes place in a setting which will be familiar to regional audiences.

"When I started to think about the story, I already had pictures in my mind where it would be set, so it comes very naturally of course because I am Finnish and I know these settings and landscapes, and I wanted to have that isolated feeling," Bergroth said.

Joined by her family and friends, Leila has to cope with the emotions of an overly-protective son who sees her new boyfriend as a threat to the mother-son relationship.

Bergroth says "The Good Son" was well received in Toronto, despite the complexities of making the challenging Finnish-language dialogue accessible in subtitle form.

In recent years, a number of Nordic films, TV shows and actors have made the crossover to success in the U.S. or UK. The most high-profile though have been Swedish or Danish productions with "Let The Right One In", "Wallander" and "The Killing" enjoying English-language remakes; while Alexander Skarsgard — who plays a brooding Viking vampire in HBO's True Blood — is perhaps the most high profile Nordic actor currently working in the U.S.

Although Finnish television or films haven't had any notable breakthroughs, Bergroth thinks Finland's creative arts industry is in good health.

"It's going quite well at the moment for Finnish films," Bergroth says. "And I think the younger film makers are maybe getting more brave, they are taking over new genres. They are trying to make horror films or comedies and even fantasy films. And we have this very long reputation of being serious and big drama people and I think this is very healthy for the industry that we have different genres."