The Finnish director speaks to SBS Film ahead of his appearance at the Nordic Film Festival.
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1 Nov 2011 - 5:01 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Lapland is big, remote, and very, very cold. It's a region that dominates the north of Finland covering nearly 99,000 square kilometres. Only about 184,000 people live there; it's the kind of place, locals say, where you can drive for hours and see no one.

It's also beautiful, and a little strange, if Lapland Odyssey is to be believed. A big hit in its homeland, it's a deadpan comedy about a young man in search of a digital set top box. It manages to both quote Homer and mock Nordic cultural stereotypes, especially those quirks of the national character, says its director Dome Karukoski, that speak to the way men and women relate and communicate.

In the film, a young man's masculinity is tested (and threatened) by his inability to accomplish the simplest domestic chore. His girlfriend, sick of his ennui, brought on by unemployment and a pair of dead-end pals, threatens to leave him. Janne (Jussi Vatanen) is useless, while his partner, Inari (Pamela Tola) is practical, sensible and motivated. The plot, says Karukoski, is a joke designed to poke fun at the way Finnish men suffer a sort of “manshame”.

“In our country,” he told SBS via phone from Finland, “a man cannot be weak. We idolise men who can always be strong. From that 'manshame' we got the script.”

Karukoski says the premise originated with screenwriter Pekko Pesonen's own feelings of inadequacy; after his wife got pregnant with their fourth child, she asked him to buy a video camera. “He just kept putting it off, and making excuses and she got madder and madder.” Karukoski says that even if the film's characters and their obsession with diversions (which prevent them from leading adult and responsible lives) stretch credulity, the film “came out of very real feelings and emotions we had about Finnish society”. He says that Finland is “female-centered” in many ways, with women holding leadership roles in politics and civics. “Women tend to be better educated; they sort of run the society. But at the same time, we are an old patriarchal society. Or rather we have the remnants of that, so that every time a lawn mower or garage door needs fixed it's the man's job.”

Most Finnish productions are shot in the warmer summer months. But Karukoski shot Lapland Odyssey in the winter of 2009: “I wanted the short cold night[s] to be just one more thing that stood between Janne and his goal.”

He says that what made the film such a big hit at home was that audiences appreciated the authentic details of life in Lapland and Finland but also that it so fiercely mocks its own cultural bigotry. For instance, at one point, Janne and his pals encounter some wealthy Russians, who take on a menacing aspect at times. “Well, the Russians are the Cyclops of the Odyssey,” he says laughing. “We have a strong love/hate relationship with Russia. After all, we're aware that at one time or another Russia has attempted to invade all their neighbours on their border.

“But on another level what we're playing with is a Finnish cultural prejudice. You know, in Finnish films Russians are always gangsters.” Here, he says, they turn out to be a bit more benign, though funnily enough they still cause some real troubles for the film's heroes.

Shot on the Red One camera and 35mm, Karukoski says that he relied on digital technology to achieve some of the film's more spectacular effects but the scenes of piled snow and frosted breath aren't faked in the studio – they really were shot in the wilderness. Fortunately, he says, the crew were amongst the most accomplished and experienced in Finland production. “So we knew how to cope with things like shooting in -36 degrees… which was probably the worst night of my life.” Still, he says, the biggest issue was keeping the cast alive. “We, the crew, could really cover up from the cold, but because of costumes they could not, and you get wet in the cold.” The solution, he says, that protected his cast from an untimely demise was a mobile sauna.

Still only in his mid thirties, Karukoski has become something of a major figure in his homeland. Lapland Odyssey, which is his fourth feature, beat out Harry Potter and some Hollywood heavy hitters like Sex and the City 2, making it the highest grossing film in Finland in 2010. He also won best director, and the film won awards for best picture and screenplay at the Jussi Awards for Finnish films. Meanwhile, he's preparing a war epic about the Finnish national hero, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.

“The film got good reviews,” he says. “The critics appreciated the same things I think as the audience did and it was the critics who select the Jussi awards, by the way, so some of the critics must have really liked it,” he deadpans. Of the film's commercial success, he says, Finland is an odd place, where the conventions of 'arthouse' and 'mainstream' become mixed up and confused. Though Lapland Odyssey, he says, was designed as a kind of 'commercial picture', such terms when it comes to Finnish cinema are somewhat unreliable, even mystifying.

“I mean here Happiness [Todd Solondz's pitch black comedy] was a major hit!”

Dome Karukoski will be a guest at the Nordic Film Festival which runs in Canberra from 26 Oct – 6 November.