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Finland’s Mikko Myllylahti returns to Cannes’ Critics Week with his feature debut as a director “The Woodcutter Story.” His short “Tiger” premiered in the same section in 2018, while “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki,” which he co-wrote with Juho Kuosmanen, won Un Certain Regard back in 2016.

“It’s a very strange film,” he tells Variety about his dark fairytale about the ever-optimistic Pepe, whose world – confined to a small, snowbound town – is slowly crumbling around him. Admitting that after “Olli Mäki,” based on a true story of a boxer preparing for his big break in the 1960s, he needed to “get away from reality.”

“I was fascinated by old tales and in Finland, they can be quite cruel,” he says. But the film was also inspired by a real-life encounter with a woodcutter from the north, not far away from his hometown of Tornio, whose calm acceptance of life’s tragedies proved difficult to shake off.

“There was something very Finnish about the way he was dealing with his ordeals: sometimes, we just don’t fight back. I don’t even know why. The ‘Book of Job’ addresses that, but if you don’t believe in God, how do you approach such misfortune? In Pepe’s case, what’s inside of him is all that he has.”

Starring Jarkko Lahti, the titular Olli Mäki, the film allowed Myllylahti to revisit his roots as a poet. He started writing as a teenager, even though most of his peers were more interested in “fixing cars and drinking beer.”

“My parents were very supportive, but they asked me to continue my studies, so I went to film school. I am not sure if that’s what they had in mind,” he laughs.

“My background as a poet definitely affected this script. I didn’t want the film to be obscure, however; I wanted to be as clear as possible without losing the ambiguity of the story. I just miss poetic cinema sometimes. Maybe in some way, I wanted to bring it back.”

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The Woodcutter Story credit: Tero Ahonen

As Pepe, content with his simple existence, suddenly has to deal with unemployment, bouts of violence and even the breakdown of his own family, Myllylahti decided to swap realism for dreamlike atmosphere and absurd, twisted humor.

“I wanted to start with some comedy, even though all these people are losing their jobs. Later, the tone changes a little.”

While his laconic, poker-faced protagonists may echo the works of Aki Kaurismäki, Myllylahti lists other names too: Bresson, Buñuel or even Takeshi Kitano, who – as well as the silent film greats – encouraged him to experiment with his actors.

“With Jarkko, we talked a lot about silent films, about Chaplin and Keaton. He needed to carry the whole film, even though Pepe is quite passive. Luckily, he understands how to transform into these kinds of characters. He did the same thing on ‘Olli Mäki.’ He started to train really early, not just to learn the technique but to really become a boxer,” he says.

Deciding to shoot on 35mm and use real locations in Lapland, he wanted it to feel timeless. But the sense of approaching doom, so palpable in the film, was something he felt even before the pandemic.

“I had this subconscious fear that something bad was about to happen, but it was just a theory. When it first started, I got scared. I wondered what would happen to the film and to the story, because when I wrote it, everything was just fine.”

“Pepe is a father, Jarkko and I both have kids. We are all trying to figure out how to deal with these ordeals that are upon us and the future, which is very uncertain.”

Still, the future of Finnish cinema leaves him more hopeful, he says, also commenting on his longtime collaboration with Helsinki-based Aamu Film Company, which produced Juho Kuosmanen’s “Compartment No. 6.” “The Woodcutter Story” was co-produced by Beofilm, Keplerfilm and Achtung Panda!, with Totem Films handling sales.

“I have been involved with Aamu for about 10 years now and I really like the way they approach filmmaking. I wouldn’t have made this film without them,” he adds.

“I think I have found my voice as a director but this is my first feature, so I won’t do the same thing next time. I am interested in genre: in ‘The Woodcutter Story’ there are elements of thriller and a bit of suspense, and I would love to make a horror film. Something’s in the air in Finland these days – we can be bold [as filmmakers]. The change is coming.”

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Mikko Myllylahti credit: Antti Angeria