One of the trickiest issues arising from high-concept projects is to avoid falling into the mistaken belief (intentionally or otherwise) that the concept is in some way bigger than the film. Films like Snakes on a Plane, for example, believe that their concept is enough to paper over the cracks, but in reality the argument ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ rarely holds water. How pleasing, then, to find a high-concept project that manages to be an enjoyable romp in its own right.
Believe it or not, the concept behind Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (that some miners dig up the original Santa Claus, who turns out to be a malignant demon), is actually far more outlandish than the film itself. Indeed, the first half of the picture pans out in a fairly ‘normal’ way, eschewing the prejudices its story might invite and simply getting on with things. It’s at this point that you realise the film is going to be mostly successful, because it doesn’t think it can take its audience for schmucks (take note, Dinner for Schmucks).
Onni Tommila as Pietari, a young boy convinced that Santa is out to get him, gives a great central performance. His credibility gives a human heart to proceedings, as does the deceptive performance of Jorma Tormilla as his father, a man who initially appears brutish and hostile but clearly cares deeply for Pietari, as evinced by a heartbreaking little scene shared by the two of them over a Christmas Eve dinner.
When Jorma and his friends capture an old, savage-looking man – who Pietari believes is Santa – the film at last falls into its stride. The first half is languid and intriguing, building slowly, but is perhaps a little drawn out; evidence perhaps that the idea for this project was adapted from a series of shorts. The film is darkly comic throughout (there are some amusing references to Finnish culture), but the final reel is where the comic gold lies, with a genuinely hilarious montage culminating in an Indiana Jones reference that justifies the occasionally baggy mid-section. But just as you begin to fear the film might be losing its way, director Jalmari Helander pulls it back together and wisely decides not to let things drag for too long.
With a beginning reminiscent of The Thing (the distinct lack of women in the film is also something of a nod to Carpenter’s film) and that closing Indy reference, perhaps it won’t come as much of a surprise that the mid-section feels a little like Pan’s Labyrinth in its narrative. There are very real events going on, after all, manipulated by humans, but are the child’s imaginings simply that, or is something genuinely sinister about to happen? In the end it lacks the clever ambiguity of Del Toro’s film, but it does hold the imagination.
With a closing reel that will put a smile on your face, Helander’s film may feel stretched and a little inconsequential at times, but Rare Exports is a unique take on Christmas cinema and is worthy of your time.