Well, folks, last week's screening marked the end of another season for us. Our last film was a debut feature, a multiple award winner, and a charming leave-off point. The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, alternatively entitled Hymyilevä Mies or Smiling Man, is a sympathetic portrait of the historical and personal circumstances surrounding Finland's Olli Mäki's World Featherweight Championship match against America's Davey Moore in 1962. This is a subtle and evocative period piece, with Kuosmanen's choice of 16mm black and white reversal film adding beautiful tone and texture, further establishing that 1960s atmosphere. The story goes like this. An up-and-coming small-town boxer gets a shot at world renown. What Olli needs now is the focus to become the alpha hero his country believes he will be. Instead, he falls in love with Raija. It reads like a familiar plot, but the film's approach is refreshing. Boxing and romance may be central here, but this isn't your standard boxing or romantic fare. It's a character piece, dealing in the gap between societal expectations and personal fulfilment when both are at odds.
Kuosmanen grew up in Kokkola, Mäki's hometown. In an interview with Cineuropa, the director reports overhearing a conversation in which Mäki was quizzed on his experience of what was described as a catastrophe. The man marketed as a national legend, the next world champion, went down that momentous day in an astonishing two rounds. The boxer's response? “It was the happiest day of my life.” In a world of sports movies driven by narratives of overcoming adversity through force of will, of doing one's utmost to 'make it', to prove oneself according to the rules of the sport, of fame, and of the hero stereotype, Mäki's feelings seem quite a reversal. This narrative switch was an ideal set-up for Kuosmanen, who originally balked at the idea of another boxing film. He was drawn to the peculiar mismatch of Mäki's humble personality to the demanding, carnivalesque world of sports fame.
We get a glimpse of a man who had no interest in being the machismo icon the public wanted. He was reluctant to knock his opponents out, a quality not exactly complementary to the sport. What he wanted was to be left alone to enjoy a life not defined by the pressures of cultural notions of success. This is the unique charm of the film. This boxer doesn't fight to prove anything. The anticipated match is not a metaphor of triumph over oneself. There's no onslaught of violins cued to evoke our emotion. Kuosmanen achieves empathy simply and masterfully. He avoids the standard tropes in favour of more inclusive questions of fulfillment and the ways in which we define this for each other and for ourselves.
Thanks to each of you who came out for this round of films, stayed for the events, gave us feedback, and helped support independent screenings in Halifax. We love you for it and will see you again soon. If you want to keep your ear to the ground for the next batch headed your way in September, sign up for our newsletter.