Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Spotlight on Nordic Countries, part I

I had been meaning to do a cinematic spotlight on Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden for a while now. I didn't have any predetermined themes to explore but was hoping to watch a few films from the region and then extract some common threads. As it turns out with a majority of my cinematic spotlights, soccer formed a common unifying thread. In fact, it was solely because of soccer that I picked the first film from Finland, FC Venus.

Soccer -- ability to unite or divide

When I read the synopsis of FC Venus, I knew I had to watch the film:

Anna's love for Pete is put to the test when she finds out to her shock that Pete has ordered tickets with his teammates to the Football World Cup in Germany, putting his team first and her second.

In a fit of anger, Anna ends up making a bet with Pete: She puts together a team from the wives and girlfriends of the FC HeMan players and challenges the men to a match at the end of the summer. If the women win, the men will have to give up football. If the men win, the women will never again give the men a hard time about their hobby.

Very early on in my high school years, I discovered the struggle of dividing time between women and soccer. In fact, the first time I found out that loving soccer might be a problem was regarding the success of a Nordic nation, Denmark. Euro 1992 was something I had looked forward to for a few months. My two favourite teams were Yugoslavia and France -- I had expected Yugoslavia to prevail but was hoping from some attacking football from Platini's French team. But things didn't go as per plan. Days before the tournament was to start in Sweden, Yugoslavia was kicked out due to their war and Denmark were drafted in as replacements. The attacking French team was absent as well because Platini fielded a defensive French team that duly got knocked out. But the real story of the tournament was the attacking Danish team who thrilled and impressed most neutrals, like myself. Their 2-0 win over Germany in the final was quite unexpected. Even 24 hours after the win I was still giddy and could not stop talking about the game. After having bored friends and family about Denmark, I finally decided to talk about it with my then girlfriend. I cannot recall how I started the conversation but I remember not being able to finish my statement as she abruptly told me to shut up and not "bore her". I was taken aback by her bluntness but for some reason, I kept quiet and continued talking nonsense with her. I was quite naive back then and even though there were other signs that this girl was the wrong one for me, I continued on for a few more months before sanity finally kicked in. Since that incident, I have actively believed that one must not have to make a choice between soccer and a woman. Although I have seen friends fight and lose this battle over soccer with their significant others, many many times. So with these feelings and sentiments in mind, I tuned into FC Venus.

I honestly cannot remember the last time I shouted at the tv while watching a film but I did that multiple times during FC Venus because I thought that the main character, Pete, was making a mistake by staying with Anna. In my opinion, the two were not meant to be together but thanks to the wonders of the script, their relationship remains in tact, despite the on and off field battles they endure. The first signs of trouble appear when one morning Pete jumps out of bed to watch a soccer show where former national iconic coach, Lauri, is being interviewed. Anna wants Pete to turn the tv off immediately but Pete just thinks that maybe it has do with his watching soccer. It turns out that Lauri is Anna's father and she was often neglected by her father in pursuit of foreign coaching assignments. Also, Anna could have been a professional soccer player but she gave up playing the game because she was frustrated with the injuries and sacrifices she had to endure to fulfill her father's dream of her becoming a professional. In a way the script nicely manages to put forward plenty of issues about relationships, not only between a couple but one of expectations between a parent and their child. There are plenty of humourous incidents, including an assortment of clichéd characters, but overall I have to admit that the film makes for a light hearted enjoyable viewing.

While soccer splits a daughter from her father in FC Venus, soccer is used as a tool by a father to bridge the gap with his son in Ragnar Bragason's Children. One of the multiple stories in the well made Icelandic film involves how a father tries to win his son's approval and love by getting his son a spot in the local soccer team. The son had not known of his father’s existence because his mother kept him away from the father's gang activities. Despite the mother’s repeated warnings, the son starts to believe that his father may have changed. But when the son shows up to the soccer session and sees the coach's broken nose, he knows his father was responsible and runs away. Eventually after a series of highly charged dramatic events, the father and son are able to start fresh and are seen watching a soccer game together before the screen fades to black.

The Danish film Kick 'n Rush distills the turbulent coming of age emotions via a soccer blender. Jacob, Mikkel and Bo are good friends who play on the same soccer team and while Bo scores most of the goals and takes the glory, it is Jacob who creates the chances that Bo puts away. The team is coached by Jacob's dad who is in love with Manchester United and turns to a picture of Alex Ferguson for inspiration; in fact Jacob's dad has given a Man Utd player name for all the young soccer players on his team. Things get complicated when a girl, Mathlide, enters Jacob's life. On top of that, Jacob eventually lets his jealously of Bo get in the way of helping Bo's chances with the professional soccer scouts. The scenes where a hung-over Bo fails to convert his chances shows the pressure that can affect kids wanting to have a career in professional soccer.

And even if one makes it into professional soccer, the pressure never really lets up as shown by the opening minutes of the Icelandic film, Eleven Men Out. Despite working himself into the ground, Ottar is not thrilled that his soccer exploits are not front page news. So in order to garner attention for himself, he tells the journalist that he is gay. Well not only does that get him front page news but also gets him kicked out from the team. With no team to play for, Ottar joins an amateur team which has some gay players. But after Ottar's arrival, more gay players show up and soon opponents are forfeiting their games in order to avoid playing Ottar's team. Clichés and crude jokes are plenty in this film but my favourite joke revolves around how Ottar's team coach is able to live on the reputation that he once scored a goal to tie a European game against Arsenal while playing for Rosenborg. In reality, the Norwegian team Rosenborg did tie a home game 1-1 against Arsenal back in Sept 2004. Ofcourse, I was not laughing back then, although I was much happier when Arsenal thrashed Rosenborg 5-1 in the return game.

When work gets in the way...

Soccer is just only one thing that can get in the way of a relationship. While soccer is a hobby for most people that has certain fixed hours, a job can often result in stress for unlimited hours. In Per Fly's excellent film, The Inheritance, we see how the pressures of running a family business tear apart Christoffer and Maria. What is interesting about the film is how the action is mostly shown as events happening to Christoffer. This gives us a chance to actually draw our own conclusions such as how Christoffer is being manipulated by his mother or how he is being lied to. As we observe him go about his duties, it becomes apparent that he is just a puppet, be it to his internal emotions or external forces like his family. All of this makes for a fascinating character study!

A job is hard as it is but what if you had a boss that constantly made irrational decisions to screw you up? And what made things worse was that you never saw this boss and as a result had no place to take out your frustrations? Lars von Trier's The Boss of it All takes some of these ideas, tears a leaf out of Ricky Gervais's The Office while adding his own unique directorial style. There are plenty of ideas explored here from employee frustration to poking fun at perceived cultural differences (Denmark vs Iceland), office romances, incompetent managers throwing around buzz tech words and even appreciation of the arts. While I find some aspects interesting, there were plenty of moments which frustrated me. David Bordwell has an excellent entry on the film's style. I wish I had read this entry before I saw the film as it would have allowed me to key in on some of the unique tricks.

I will look at Norway and Sweden in part II. From the film picks, it looks like soccer won't be on the agenda for those selections.
Ratings out of 10:
FC Venus (2005, Finland, Joona Tena): 7.5
Children (2006, Iceland, Ragnar Bragason): 10
Eleven Men Out (2005, Iceland, Róbert I. Douglas): 5
Kick 'N Rush (2003, Denmark, Aage Rais-Nordentoft): 7
The Inheritance (2003, Denmark co-production, Per Fly): 9
The Boss of it All (2006, Denmark co-production, Lars von Trier): 7

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