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Fight to the Finnish: Close-Up on "The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki"

Kuosmanen's film about the Finnish boxer toys with the conventions of the sports film by replacing drive with ambivalence.
Close-Up is a column that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Juho Kuosmanen's The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) is playing July 1 - August 1, 2017 exclusively on MUBI in the United States.
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a subtle bait-and-switch of a film, but that’s okay. Certain generic conventions imply that it will head in a certain direction, but I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that it doesn’t. In fact, the refusal of Olli Mäki—the film and the man—to play by the rules is the most interesting thing it has going for it. The man, like the film, has a very clear trajectory mapped out in front of him, and a super-human form of concentration—the kind that makes “winners”—is demanded of him. Instead, Olli prefers to live a life of distraction, of divided purpose. It is part of our ruling ideology that this kind of well-rounded life is anathema to men (or films) that want to achieve.
And maybe that’s right, in a way. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a small movie from a small country. As boxing films go, we could compare it to, say, Ryan Coogler’s Creed, which, relatively speaking, is a medium-sized boxing movie from a big country. A continuation of the Rocky franchise under different cover, Creed is about a young man (Michael C. Jordan) coming into possession of a big name, that of his late father. He does this with the help of his father’s old adversary (Sylvester Stallone). Although Creed is in many ways a highly personal and intimate film, it is organized like a Roman battle and told like an epic poem. By contrast, Olli Mäki is almost comically anti-heroic.
The smallness that writer-director Juho Kuosmanen has practically baked into the film is, to some extent, a matter of geopolitics. Most viewers are unlikely to realize that this movie is based on a true story, that Olli Mäki was a real Finnish fighter who did have a real shot at the World Featherweight title against American Davey Moore in 1962. Kuosmanen is well aware of the fact that this chapter in Finnish culture is at best a footnote in the larger history of sport. So his solution is not to produce a kind of flag-waving national tribute, the sort so beloved of local grant panels but almost always dead on arrival in theatres. Instead, the film adopts the formal and narrative modesty of its subject. It deflects; it demurs. 
Olli (Jarkko Lahti) is a successful local fighter with a good record. But he’s getting older. If he’s going to get a shot at the big time, it has to come soon. He’s also a well-liked village baker and the pride of his small town, a man who has never let his prizefighting pursuits swell his ego or detract from his status as a solid citizen. That’s why it is a bit unfortunate that Olli’s shot at international fame necessarily comes through Finland’s only other notable boxer in living memory. Elis (Eero Moniloff) is a crass party boy, a rube who fancies himself a jetsetter because his own brief boxing career once earned him a handshake with Frank Sinatra. He pulls on every connection he has, leveraging his home, car, and probably his own wife (Joanna Haartti) to get Olli the championship bout. 
Trouble is, Olli and Elis are at cross-purposes from the start. Where Olli wants to keep his head down and practice, Elis is all about promotion and schmoozing, building the fight up into an international U.S. / Finland showdown. (He is particularly adept at getting wealthy investors to back Olli by appealing to national pride.) Olli, shy and retiring, has no interest in talking to any of these people, and his trash-talk game against Moore is less Muhammad Ali and more Jimmy Carter. Before long, Olli is overwhelmed and looking for a way out. (It doesn’t help that Olli is forced to box outside his weight class, a circumstance created entirely by Elis’s pettiness.)
As it happens, he has a sweetheart back at home. Raija (Oona Airola) and Olli start to get more serious just as he’s preparing to leave for Helsinki to train. They are on the phone constantly and, when Raija impulsively shows up at the training facility to support Olli, the stage is set for a major rift between Olli and Elis, Elis and Raija, and as things devolve, between Olli and the Finnish nation.
One can assume that Kuosmanen’s Olli Mäki is considerably more ambivalent about victory than the real prizefighter, who went on to win the European Boxing Union’s light welterweight title two years after the Davey Moore bout. But The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki presents a figure who confounds not only the sports genre, but conventional representations of masculinity. What if there was a potential champion who didn’t really care if he won or lost? After all, Elis provides his own explanation of the title—it’s winning your first title, hearing the crowd cheering your name. But for Olli, it’s knowing that Raija will be by his side no matter what. One kind of happiness is only for a select few; the other is something we might all experience one day. After all, you don’t need to be a boxer to find yourself a real knockout.

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