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Non-Review Review: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies)

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki plays almost like a mumblecore Raging Bull.

To be fair, that is a very facile description. Almost every boxing film stands in the shadow of Martin Scorsese’s 1980 biography of Jake LaMotta, but The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki invites those comparisons by filming its period-specific based-on-a-true-story boxing fable in black and white. It is hard not to think of Raging Bull in that context, and it is incredibly daring for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki to actively invite the comparison.

Skipping to the point.

Skipping to the point.

However, in explicitly evoking that classic boxing movie, writers Juho Kuosmanen and Mikko Myllylahti are able to do something genuinely interesting. Taking all the iconography and expectations of the boxing movie genre, Kuosmanen and Myllylahti are able to tell a story that skews its perspective slightly. Channelling Raging Bull only underscores this subtle shift, with The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki not so much asking for a comparison as a contrast.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is charming in the way that it embraces the clichés and expectations of the boxing movie only to subvert with a more naturalistic (and optimistic) love story about a boxer who largely eschews the conventions of the biography films that such sportsmen tend to inhabit.

On the ropes.

On the ropes.

Writers and directors love boxing, for any number of reasons. Boxing is a very visceral sport that plays very well on screen, it has very immediate and very effective stakes for the audience watching at home. More than that, cinema’s recurring fascination with boxing as a working class sport instills the brutality with a sense of nobility, inviting a greater sense of empathy with the characters who put themselves in the ring. On top of that, boxing also allows for characters to literally bleed for their art.

This is why there are so many boxing movies. There are two truly iconic films about the sport, and cinema’s fascination with the sport can be measured by the fact that neither Raging Bull nor Rocky render the other redundant. However, cinema is saturated with non-classic boxing films. The Rocky franchise is a cinematic powerhouse, beating Rambo to the title of “most iconic Sylvester Stallone franchise” in spite of pop culture’s recurring fascination with people brutally killing other people that would seem to give the advantage to the other film.

Chairing the discussion.

Chairing the discussion.

Each and every year, it seems like the road to the Oscars is strewn with beaten and bloodied boxing films. Creed, Rocky Balboa, Southpaw, The Fighter, Bleed for This. (Even Warrior fits comfortably within the mould, despite shifting the definition of “boxing.”) As such, boxing is very much part of the broader cultural language, to the point that it serves as almost cinematic shorthand, and there is something to be said for the way that The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki plays upon that.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is based upon the true story of the build-up to the boxing match between Olli Mäki and Davey Moore in Helsinki during August 1962. Mäki was a lightweight Finnish boxer with very little experience, while Moore was the featherweight champion of the world. From the outset, it seems like The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is going to be the classic underdog story, regardless of the actual outcome of the fight.

Be still, his beating heart.

Be still, his beating heart.

In fact, Kuosmanen and Myllylahti make a point to hit many of the expected beats. There is a sense of economic strife underpinning the match, with Mäki a communist baker fighting to vicariously fulfil the ambitions of his financially struggling manager Elis. There is a powerful desperation to the film, both in terms of Elis’ desire to live through his client and in the recurring anxiety that Mäki feels when thrust into the spotlight as a minor celebrity with the hopes and dreams of a country weighing upon him.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki hits on many of the expected plot and character points, albeit in interesting ways. As Mäki contemplates his own role as a source of entertainment, he visits a fairground sideshow and catches a glimpse of a performer between acts. As Mäki struggles to make the obligatory weigh-in as a feather-weight fighter, he tries to lose weight by sitting in a sauna dressed from head to toe. There are training montages and drill sequences, small acts of rebellion and moments of brutal honesty.

Feeling boxed in.

Feeling boxed in.

However, the best moments in The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki lie in low-key naturalism, in a willingness to savour the life that exists outside boxing. A recurring theme in boxing films is the question of how completely an athlete will devote themselves to their art, what they will risk and what they will surrender in order to accomplish something meaningful in the field to which they have devoted themselves. Often, the little glimpses of a life beyond boxing exist primarily in contrast to that dedication, as a reminder of the price that must be paid.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki works so well because it finds space for smaller moments that help to convey a sense of Mäki beyond this sport. In early scenes, the movie follows Mäki to a family wedding allowing for a number of low-key naturalistic interactions that create a sense of Mäki as a fully-formed individual not solely defined by his sport. There is a lot to be said for a boxing movie that finds time to watch its lead awkwardly try to catch the rhythm on the dance floor, or take the time out to fly a kite.

Balancing the scales.

Balancing the scales.

A lot of this is down to the central performance of Jarkko Lahti, who brings a wonderful vulnerability to the title role. He is well supported by Oona Airola as Raija, his girlfriend. The romance between the two characters feels very genuine and well-observed, free from a lot of the melodrama that one expects in sports movies like this. Eero Milonoff also provides a very effective supporting performance as Elis Ask, Mäki’s struggling status-sensitive manager who worries about how seriously his ward is taking this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Juho Kuosmanen also directs the film, and ensures that it looks beautiful. There is a crispness to the imagery and confidence to the direction that lends itself to the material. As with Raging Bull, there is a lot of craft on display in a way that is consciously designed to feel organic. In particular, Kuosmanen does fantastic work on the scenes on and around water, which seems to represent freedom and opportunity to Mäki. The screen shines white as light reflects off the surface of the water, and glistens on the skins of his characters.

Packing a real punch.

Packing a real punch.

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a lovely little film, rendered all the more effective for its fascination with the title character’s life outside the ring, captured in small exchanges and minor beats that add up to a much greater whole.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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