Monday, 22 September 2008

The Liar (1981, West Germany/Finland, Mika Kaurismaki) and Zombie and the Ghost Train (1991, Finland, Mika Kaurismaki)

Whilst his brother Aki is quite a respected name on the arthouse circuit, it's easy to forget that his brother Mika was the first sibling to release a feature; 1981's 'The Liar'. Scripted by and starring Aki, it's an amusing homage to the French New Wave, most notably the early black and white Godard features. Whilst one scene in a cinema features clips from Bande รก Part, the film it's closest to in tone is 'Breathless'. Ville Alfi is a hyperactive and articulate drifter who spends his time chain smoking, chatting up women and borrowing money from those he knows using numerous different excuses. He also reminds me of Johnny in the Mike Leigh film 'Naked'. Although not quite as bitter or corrosive, Ville Alfi is a man who escapes all situations, who's full of big words but small thoughts, and doesn't do anything because there's nothing worth doing. He's proud of his lack of accomplishments and in a sense of deadpan irony well associated with the Kaurismaki's finds his comeuppance in a fashion one never expected.

Zombie (Silu Seppala), the eponymous character in the second Kaurismaki feature, could be Ville Alfi ten years later. We first find him homeless in Istanbul, pale and ghost-like in appearance. In true flashback fashion, Kaurismaki shows Zombie six months previously, much healthier, and then charts his decline. Another drifter who can't stick to one thing, his musical talents are his only possible route out of his rut. However he has a self-destructive streak a mile long, scuppering his chances of enjoying a career with Harry and the Mulefukkers, a US-influenced rockabilly band that might as well be The Leningrad Cowboys (a film that featured Seppala). Seemingly followed and influenced by The Ghost Train, a much cooler leather clad trio who might as well be the devils to Harry and the Mulefukkers guardian angels (their effect is vampiric - sucking the life out of Zombie), Zombie turns to alcohol and his whole life falls apart when his girlfriend and mother leave him. Only Harry offers a chance of redemption.

There are obvious similarities between the two Kaurismaki films. Both feature protagonists who are drifters, without purpose and prone to self-destruction. The tone of the two films though couldn't be more different. Ville Alfi's a charming liar - you can understand how he manages to convince people to believe his stories. He's an articulate and thoughtful guy whose inability to get anything done is born out of some existential belief. Zombie however is a man whose soul is a bottomless abyss, whose alcoholic decline can't be arrested. Perhaps the fate of Zombie is a warning to Ville Alfi. This is what he might become. This is part of the issue I have with 'Zombie and the Ghost Train'. If this is true deadpan humour of the Kaurismaki trademark, then it's positively six feet under. The film is so unremittingly grim that each self-destructive episode of Zombie's life becomes more difficult to bear. Ville Alfi's scrapes seem slightly more harmless and the humour in his concocted lies is more apparent. Zombie cannot accept the help of others, throwing goodwill back in the face of those who offer it. Kaurismaki's career is rather idiosyncratic, making films in the US and Brazil, but Finland seems the natural home for these brothers, where their deadpan humour seems to work best.

The Liar: 3/5
Zombie and the Ghost Train: 2.5/5

Both films are released by Bluebell Films on 22 September.

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