You better watch out/ You better not cry/ Don't leave the house/I'm telling you why/ Joulupukki is coming to town.
In his feature debut, the black-comedy-thriller Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (sorry, an explanation of the title would give too much away), Finland's Jalmari Helander turns the kid adventure genre on its head, drawing on the dark pagan origins of Joulupukki (Finnish Santa) to create a taut, gorgeously filmed and enjoyably wicked cinematic treat.
In the press notes to the film, which screened at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, Helander refers to the pagan figure called the Yule Goat, "a horned creature that used to bring twigs to children," and, according Finnish folklore, terrified them and then some.
Set on Christmas Eve in the Korvatunturi mountains of northern Finland (although shot on location in Norway), Rare Exports begins on top of a large hill on the Russian side of the border. Young, motherless Pietari (Onni Tommila) and his older friend Juuso (Ilmari Jarvenpaa) are spying on a small team of diggers working for a strangely obsessed British archaeologist given to ominous speechifying.
This is no ordinary hill, we learn, but an enormous ice-filled burial mound created by native peoples hundreds of years ago.
As the boys return to their snowmobile through a hole cut in the border fence, Juuso scoffs when Pietari suggests the foreigners are digging up ancient (and evil) Santa Claus. At home, the precocious Pietari pores over folklore books and, as if he needed further convincing, spots bare footprints in the snow outside his bedroom window.
It becomes clear that some ravenous force has invaded the remote hunting community. The boy's dad Rauno (Jorma Tommila) and his two manly hunting pals discover a field littered with slaughtered reindeer - what was to be their main source of food and income. No wolf could have made this mess. The men suspect the foreigners are somehow responsible, but the diggers have vanished. Things grow more bizarre when one of the hunters finds something unusual in his wolf trap.
To reveal more would spoil the "fun" that ensues, but suffice it to say that budding detective Pietari figures out what's really going on, and thus leads the men to save the community in more ways than one.
Helander delivers a playfully dark tale with just the kind of cynical twinkle so many need during this season of maudlin, heart-warming movies.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
- Directed and written by Jalmari Helander
- Starring Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Ilmari Jarvenpaa, Peeter Jakobi and Jonathan Hutchings
- (In English and Finnish with English subtitles)
- Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale opens today in Toronto at The Royal.
Special to The Globe and Mail