THE HAPPIEST DAY IN THE LIFE OF OLLI MÄKI
Director: Juho Kuosmanen
Cast: Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, Eero Milonoff
Running Time: 1:32
Release Date: 4/21/17 (limited); 5/5/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | May 4, 2017
Why does the boxer box? That's the central question of The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. The question is not to be taken in a general or philosophical way, though. No, it's specific to this particular boxer, and since the eponymous fighter has little need for philosophy, the question is entirely a practical one.
As far as we can tell, Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) fights for only one reason: because he can. He was a baker in his small hometown, somewhere a train ride away from the bustle of any sense of city life in Finland. He has had a good career as an amateur fighter—over 300 matches and a few titles to his name. Does he love the sport? It doesn't seem like it, although, to be fair, the film picks up at a point shortly before boxing becomes the last thing on his mind, even though it should be the first and only thing about which he should be thinking.
It's possible—likely probable—that he loved it at one point, but then he a meets a woman at a wedding in his hometown. He will be fighting the bout of his career in a matter of weeks. He needs to train. He needs to lose a few pounds to make weight. The match, against an American fighter (played by John Bosco Jr.), is for a world championship, and Finland could really use the morale boost. A lot of people have put a lot of effort and money into this fight, which will be held on Olli's home turf—a first for the country. Winning this match could change the course of his entire career and life.
If he boxes simply because he can, there's a better question now for Olli: Why should he box? The reasons should be obvious. They're listed just in the previous paragraph. They're good arguments, of course, but then Raija (Oona Airola) smiles at Olli. At that moment, his face seems to ask, "What were those reasons, again?"
This is a simple film, based on a true story—although only the most devoted fans of the sport and Finnish natives will know of it. It's biographical, then, but intimate in a way that we don't often get from cinematic biographies. Without any context of it before or after the timeframe, the story is only about a handful of weeks in its subject's life in the year 1962 (In keeping with the era, J.P. Passi provides the unassuming black-and-white cinematography).
Obviously, it's a love story, but the screenplay by Mikko Myllylahti and director Juho Kuosmanen (his first feature) presents that love as a given. Olli doesn't grow to love Raija. He simply announces that fact to his manager Elis (Eero Milonoff) one day before training. The fighter tells his manager that he just realized it, although we suspect it's something he has known since he met her.
Elis' response begins the complications. This is the worst time Olli could fall in love. Olli knows this, but what is he to do? He can't ignore Raija and focus entirely on the upcoming fight, even though that's what his manager wants. What his manager wants is the same thing that his sponsors, the people of Finland, and boxing fans around the globe want.
For her part, Raija is unquestioningly supportive. She stays with him through his training, even though that means she has to sleep in the top part of a bunkbed made for children. Elis hints and then strongly suggests that she's not wanted in Olli's life during this process. During a photoshoot for a clothing ad, Elis keeps her off to the side while her boyfriend poses with a statuesque model (Olli has to stand on a stepstool to match her height). While a documentary filmmaker captures a home scene with Olli, Elis kicks Raija out of the shot and out of the house (one that he borrowed from a friend, by the way, because his own home is a cramped apartment, as well as a literal and figurative mess). Raija keeps coming back, though.
One might be asking, where, then, is the conflict? Olli can have both of these things—a successful fight and a woman whom he loves. The major reason the film works is because Myllylahti and Kuosmanen don't see this as a love story or even a story about boxing (The big fight is the definition of an anticlimax). Love and boxing are part of it, obviously, but this is first and foremost the story of a man who finds love and, through it, comes to realize that he might never have wanted his boxing career in the first place.
It's a film about the grueling hardship of training—coming so close to reaching the correct weight for a class, only to find out that some more punishing time in the sauna is necessary or, as the match gets closer, some induced vomiting is required). It's also about the impersonal nature of professional sports, as Olli is trotted around and posed at various events like a mannequin, not a man). It's definitely about the overwhelming fear of being a disappointment—even in an arena that no longer matters that much to you.
This may be a simple story. Myllylahti and Kuosmanen, though, fill The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki with so many details that we might not even realize how much the film is saying about these ideas and its central character, until a certain motif is repeated or Olli offers a specific look.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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