Towards a New Horizon (1939)

Newly orphaned youth Yrjö (Kullervo Kalske) heads off to the big city in search of his fortune, stopping briefly to meet, and it turns out, impregnate his childhood sweetheart Elsa (Irma Seikkula). An innocent in the urban jungle, not unlike his co-star in her previous Juurakon Hulda, Yrjö advertises in the newspaper as a man looking for work, only to attract the attention of a liquor smuggler who wants him to work on the wrong side of the law. Penniless and destitute, Yrjö is just about to throw himself in front of a train, when he is rescued by the friendly Lehtinen (Reino Valkama), and put back on his feet by the Salvation Army.

Pretending to be a trader’s long-lost nephew, Yrjö gets a job at last, and after a long series of misadventures, becomes a champion athlete, before returning to the countryside and cluelessly playing with Elsa’s son Matti, unaware that he is the father. Tardily coming to realise his responsibilities, both to Elsa and to Finland, he competes in the 10,000 metres race at the Helsinki Olympics and, after a tense battle, wins the gold medal.

Once again, town and country are a vital juxtaposition – a happily backward rural paradise, all sunny fields and friendly carters, contrasted with the bustle of the big city, where even an honest country boy has to duck and dive (and lie) in order to make it. The divide between the rural and urban Finland, of course, was more than just geographical – it tended to reflect the stand-off between whites and reds in the Finnish Civil War, and even today, often marks the line between conservative and socialist voters.

Urho Karhumäki’s novel Avoveteen (literally Into Clear Water, but referenced in English sources as Towards a New Horizon) was an obvious choice for a Finnish movie, having won the gold medal for “epic literature” at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which featured an artistic achievement category. The film went into production shortly after Japan gave up on the idea of hosting the 1940 Olympics, claiming that it had better things to do with the money. The Olympics were instead awarded to Helsinki, creating a little cul-de-sac in history of commemorative 1940 Helsinki Olympics memorabilia, and inspiring director Orvo Saarikivi to make a film adaptation. However, the 1940 Helsinki Olympics were fated not to happen, either. Avoveteen, like Lapatossu and Vinski in Olympic Fever, was made and released in the brief 12-month window between Helsinki receiving and cancelling the Olympics after the November 1939 outbreak of the Winter War, making the near-future finale of this film a brief moment of alternate-universe science fiction. Or, considering that Finns also win silver and bronze, fantasy…

The film is notable for its scenes of athletes in training, and for something oddly rare in early Finnish films: a sequence filmed in a sauna. Yrjö’s Olympic victory is filmed in a real stadium, cunningly steered to sound Olympic through cutaways to the radio announcer and drop-ins of a crowd watching some real-life event, and through occasional glimpses of foreign flags (including, notably, a Nazi one), and foreign press (including a Japanese cameraman). Yrjö and his fellow runners are never shown running with the crowd in the background, although the camera does sneakily get a good shot of them passing the distinctive tower of the Helsinki Olympic stadium, which would not get to host the Games for real until 1952.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland

The Devil General

“…a dozen native English speakers were co-opted into the propaganda scheme in December 1944, which happens to be when Sacred Sailors was completed and submitted to the censor. They began broadcasting the Hinomaru Hour later that month. The men read out carefully curated messages from prisoners, performed skits and radio plays, and even songs, including a ditty about ‘the daring young men of the flying Japanese.’ They also did everything they could to subvert their captors’ intentions, including selecting as much British music as possible, because they hoped American servicemen would hate it.”

Over at All the Anime, I discuss the possibility that the first English-language voice-actor in Japanese animation was a prisoner of war.

A Thing of Beauty

I am absolutely charmed by the sight of the hardcover Chinese edition of my History of the Silk Road, coming out very soon from New World Press in Beijing.

“The Silk Road is a route from the edges of the European world to the central plains of China. For thousands of years, its history has been a traveller’s history, of brief encounters in desert towns, snowbound passes and nameless forts. It was the conduit that first brought Buddhism, Christianity and Islam into China, and the site of much of the ‘Great Game’ between Victorian empires. Jonathan Clements guides the reader through the trackless wastes of the Taklamakan Desert, its black whirlwinds and dead lakes, its shimmering mirages, lost cities and mysterious mummies, but also its iconic statues and memorable modern pop songs. He explains the truth behind odd tales of horses that sweat blood, defaced statues and missing frescoes, and Marco Polo’s stories of black gold that seeps from the earth.”

Audiobook

I think Tommi the mixmaster needs precisely one button on his mega-console to record me reading out a book, but here we are anyway, in the studio to lay down the audio for The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals, available in print, Kindle and audiobook next month at Chinese new year. Managed to get to the end of the Tang dynasty in our first day. Aiming to reach the end of the Ming dynasty by close of business on Thursday.

Kang Youwei (1858-1927)

“He remains an immensely influential but highly problematic thinker, with some ideas, such as the abolition of private property, that helped inform some of the strategies of the Communist Party, but others, such as a deep interest in Eugenics, that impart a shadow of sinister Social Darwinism to his starry-eyed pronouncements of global unity: a paradise that requires the destruction of all diversity.”

“Among the glimpses Kang offered of his future world, he foresaw liquidized food, flying houses, high-speed trains, dirigibles and self-driving cars, air conditioning and central heating. Kang’s utopia comes with daily medical check-ups, in a world in which doctors are more highly respected than soldiers. At the culmination of the ‘Great Concord,’ Kang hoped for a further uplift, in which a sufficiently enlightened humanity, lifespans already extended into centuries by medical care and diet, might seek immortality and travel through astral projection.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, I write up that glorious nutter Kang Youwei.

Millennium Actress and Film

“‘I am not really familiar with Japanese films,’ [Satoshi Kon] commented in an interview at the time of the film’s release. ‘I think I get more from the combination of memorable films that I saw in my childhood, rather than particular scenes from particular films.’ In other words… Kon’s movie references are a set of impressions of certain movie types – a fantasy of what the films might have been, rather than what they actually were.”

Over at All the Anime, I write about just some of the dozens of movie-history easter eggs in Millennium Actress. Another extract from my long essay in the new Blu-ray release.

Best Book 2020

“If I had to pick a single general martial arts history book in English, I would recommend A Brief History of the Martial Arts by Dr. Jonathan Clements.” Over at the Martial History Team blog, my book gets a nod in their “Best General Martial Arts Histories in English” category.

“This is the book I recommend if you want a single volume on martial arts history based on sound evidence and sourced research,” wrote Richard Bejtlich in his review of the book last month. “I highlighted so many sentences in my Kindle edition that I ran over Amazon’s limit! …it’s an absolute steal and would make a great gift for any martial artist.”

Millennium Actress and History

“The 1990s saw the retirement of the generation that had created post-war entertainment. In the anime world, multiple studios were merging, folding or changing ownership as the surviving founders and primary shareholders cashed in their chips and went off to play golf. A new generation of bright young things, including Kon himself, was taking over – either with a sense of sympathy and respect for the old guard (like the character Genya) or with a blithe dismissal of them (like his cameraman Kyoji Ida).”

Over at All the Anime, I write about Satoshi Kon’s Millennium Actress as a point in time within movie history. This is an excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote as part of the Blu-ray booklet.

Rich Girl (1939)

Based on a 1921 novel by Kersti Bergroth, Rich Girl premiered in September 1939, just before the Soviet Union would bring peace tumbling down. It is suffused with flapper-era jazz, born both from its 1920s origins and a certain, desperate attempt to feel good in the face of impending conflict.

Anni Hall, no really, is the titular rich girl played by Sirkka Sari, revealed in a prolonged montage of wakings, dressings, washings and nights out, as she busies herself with the apparently exhausting job of doing nothing in Helsinki.

“All this riding and dancing is starting to feel retarded,” she says – the English subtitles presumably also belonging to a less enlightened age. But her friend Lea (Lea Joutseno) suggests that they go off somewhere exciting and strange. For a moment, there is a tantalising prospect that his film will take Finns off to Morocco or Iceland, but no, things take a different turn when Anni’s horse is spooked by a car in the road, and the upheaval causes her and her friend Lea to meet the handsome Mr Vinter (Olavi Reimas).

Love is in the air for the rich girls, but only once they have vaguely come to appreciate the message that money isn’t everything (although as the film inadvertently implies, IT REALLY HELPS). Particular fun is had at the expense of Edla (Eija Londén) a loan-shark’s daughter who cluelessly bounds over the class fences when she attracts the marriage proposal of the well-to-do Lasse (Uolevi Räsänen). At least there is something interesting about Edla – as the film relentlessly drives home, the main cast have nothing in their lives but sailing and riding, leaving them even boring themselves.

“What are your hobbies?” Anni asks Allan (Turo Kartto).

“Same as yours,” he shrugs, in a conversation liable to be repeated on Tinder all over contemporary Finland.

Anni attempts to take poor-girl Irja (Irma Seikkula) under her wing, but only frustrates her by offering solutions to her love life and career that require a privileged easy access to wealth. She pleads the potions and lotions she offers her are gifts, but is scolded for not understanding that Irja will not be able to afford to replace them once they are gone.

The film is infamous in Finnish cinema history for the tragedy that hung over it. After her star turns in The Women of Niskavuori and The Man from Sysma, this was Sirkka Sari’s third and last film, and premiered two months after its lead actress had died in a freak accident towards the end of filming. Finishing early one day due to bad weather, the cast retired to Hotel Aulanko in Hämeenlinna, where, Sari went to the roof to see the view with a man she had met. He took the elevator, she took the stairs. He arrived on the roof but found no sign of her.

Her body was recovered soon after from the hotel furnace, into which she had tumbled down a chimney from the roof. It has always been presumed that she mistook the chimney for an observation platform, discovering a moment too late that it had no floor. The film was completed without her, and she was buried in the church where she had planned to get married in 1940. Sari’s scenes were completed with a body double.

The grisly scandal did the film no harm at the box office, but is pretty much all it is remembered for. That’s something of a disservice to the young singer Olavi Virta (“Finland’s Bing Crosby”), who turns up briefly here crooning in a night club, and would go on to become one of the greatest Finnish stars on or off-screen.

Five decades later in 1993, Tapani Maskula in the Turun Sanomat argued that Rich Girl was a deeply under-rated film, far ahead of its time, praising its nuanced ability to see both sides of the class divide. I think that’s rather forgiving for a movie that ends with Mr Vinter revealing to Anni’s parents that he was only pretending to be a workman all along, and that their daughter has cleverly fallen in love with a Rich Boy.

The DVD includes a repeat of What is Suomi-Filmi?, as well as the short Pelle-Petteri and The Height of Fashion, an advertorial of some of the best in European fashions, just before the women of Europe would spend the next five years making their clothes out of old potato sacks.

Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland