Scapegoat (1935)

Boss-eyed wantwit Adalbert (Kaarlo Kartio) inherits nine thousand marks from his uncle. Deciding, for reasons unclear, that he really wants to open a milk shop, he finds a job at the swish Helsinki department store Sampo, in order to learn about sales. There, he is swiftly dragged into the schemes of the vivacious shop-girl Irja (Ester Toivonen), who persuades him to become the store’s in-house scapegoat. Whenever a customer has a complaint, Adalbert publicly takes the blame, thereby saving the more established staff from censure.

Adalbert soon tires of his role, but glumly agrees to work out two weeks’ mandatory notice, during which time Irja comes to realise the error of her ways, and that her suitor Mr Vaara (Jaakko Korhonen) is really the owner of the company, observing his wayward staff undercover.

Based on a 1930 stage play of the same name by Yrjö Soini (a.k.a. Agapetus), director Erkki Karu’s film displays an uncharacteristically ham-fisted grasp of the cinematic medium, alternating between locked-off shots of entire scenes from the stage version, occasionally invaded by sudden, poorly integrated close-ups. The contemporary Ilta Sanomat review pointedly noted its failure to utilise the potential of the movie camera. This looks and feels like what it is – an unimaginative restaging of the play, occasionally enlivened by location footage.However, Syntipukki (Scapegoat) is notable for its location shots, not only of what was then Heikinkadu in central Helsinki (thirteen years before the street was renamed Mannerheimintie), but also of the famous Stockmann department store, which itself was only completed in 1930, and doubles for the fictional Sampo. There are some touching moments of local colour, particularly a sequence of an army of cleaners, bashful before the camera, as they arrive to prepare the store for its morning opening, and a bunch of naturalistically irritating schoolboys in the street, who have plainly ignored the director’s exhortations to neither look at the camera nor get in the actors’ way. In a remarkably confident decision on product placement, Stockmann embraced the idea of a film that showcased its flagship store, seemingly shrugging off the depiction of the staff within as work-shy and corrupt. Compare this to the more modern sensibilities of the Reebok corporation, which sued TriStar Pictures for $10 million in 1996 after the Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire took money for product placement and then had its cast repeatedly shout “Fuck Reebok!” on camera.

No such worries appear to have bothered Stockmann, which is presented as a lavish paradise of consumption, complete with sequences of a catwalk model show where Adalbert is pursued by a female contortionist, and a café performance by the singer Mary Hannikainen. The cobbled streets outside have altered remarkably little; the fixtures within are similarly unchanged, except the famous Stockmann Clock, which was not installed until 1965. Considering the fetish that every guidebook and language textbook has for wittering about this supposedly iconic meeting spot, it is strange indeed to see shots of the outside of the store that do not include it. As the good-hearted innocent Adalbert, Kaarlo Kartio is a holy fool, his nose pressed literally against the glass of the shop windows in a scene that both allegorises his outsider status and milks it for comedy value. He represents the vast majority of Helsinki urbanites, only recently arrived from a “countryside” that suddenly finds itself on the outskirts of a modern city, baffled by the customs and mores of the metropolis, even though many of the people around him are likely to be only a generation or less removed from similar rural backgrounds.

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

Advertisements

Judge Dee Fights The Power

From Wu, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and the US. Recommended reading if you want to get the most out of Tsui Hark’s new Judge Dee movie, in which Empress Wu launches a vendetta against her former ally.

—-

Judge Dee was rounded up with a number of other officials, and escorted to the investigators’ head office by the Gate of Beautiful Scenery. Lai Chunchen informed his captives that they had one shot at mercy – under plea-bargaining terms that Empress Wu had recently approved, anyone who immediately pleaded guilty could have their sentences commuted from execution to banishment. With that in mind, Lai Chunchen asked Judge Dee if there was a conspiracy. Dee’s reply was blunt and sarcastic:

[Wu’s] Great Zhou revolution has occurred, and ten thousand things are changing. Old officials of the Tang dynasty like myself are soon to be executed. You bet there’s a conspiracy!

Lai Chunchen would have preferred a straight yes or no, but took Judge Dee’s response to be in the affirmative. Dee was locked up for processing, although his stance managed to impress some of his captors. One investigator, doubting very much that Dee would be detained long in exile, asked him if the judge would put a good word in for him on his return, to which the judge responded by literally banging his head against a wooden pillar while calling the investigator a series of rude names.

The Judge, however, was not going to go without a fight. Waiting for a moment when he was left alone, he wrote a letter to his son on the inner lining of his jacket, and then prevailed upon his captors to take the jacket back to his home, so that his family could take out the winter padding.

On finding the secret message, Dee’s son immediately applied for an audience with Wu herself, and showed the empress the accusing letter. Lai Chunchen was called to explain himself, but argued that the letter was a forgery, since he had no record of the judge’s clothes being sent back to his house. There, Dee’s case might have foundered before it could have truly begun, but for a slave who approached Wu himself. The ten-year-old boy was one of many palace servants who owed their position to the alleged misdeeds of their elder family members. Uncaring that his words could lead to his own torture or death, the boy announced that his family was innocent, and that he lived his life as a slave solely because of the persecutions and lies of the ‘cruel clerks.’

This dramatic turn of events forced Wu to summon Dee to the palace to explain himself. She asked the judge why he had pleaded guilty in the first place, to which Dee replied that it was the only way he could avoid torture and death”

Cat-astrophe

At Tonghuamen station in the Chinese city of Xi’an, a man is dressed as Doraemon, the big, fluffy blue cat, hero of many a manga series, and known in China as Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.

“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?” he yells at me through the mouth of his costume.

“Indeed I do,” I say, not stopping. He starts to scurry after me, his big clown-cat-feet flopping on the dusty pavement.

“SAY MY NAME, THEN! WHAT’S MY NAME?”

“Ding-Dang, the Time Travelling Cat.” I resist the urge to add that the Chinese media have recently outed Ding-Dang as an agent of Japanese oppression, with an insidious soft-power message designed to distract them from the ongoing dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Mainly because I don’t know the Chinese for soft power (it is ruan shili, for next time).

“NOT BAD! AND LET ME TELL YOU, LARGE FOREIGN FRIEND, YOU’LL WISH YOU HAD A TIME MACHINE IF YOU DON’T SIGN UP RIGHT NOW FOR ONE OF THE UNITS ON OFFER AT THE RENWEI TOWERS CITY DEVELOPMENT, COMING SOON RIGHT NEAR HERE.”

He has to shout because he is wearing an all-over velour suit designed to make him look like a giant blue cat. The thermometer is climbing towards 30 degrees today, so I think the heat might have driven him a little bit loopy.

“I’m not interested,” I say.

“TIME MACHINES AREN’T REALLY REAL, YOU KNOW. YOU CAN’T ACTUALLY GO BACK IN TIME AND SIGN UP FOR THIS OFFER LATER ON.”

“In which case, how did you get here, Ding-Dang?”

There is a pause, while Ding-Dang the Time Travelling Cat thinks about this.

“TO TELL THE TRUTH, I AM STUDYING FOR A DEGREE IN MARKETING. I AM REALLY HUMAN.”

“And if were you, Ding-Dang,” I add, “I’d be more worried about if you were legal.”

“OF COURSE I’M LEGAL—!”

“Because a Chinese court has just ruled that Robot Cat [Jiqimao], a trademark registered by a Fujian sportswear firm, is a blatant copy of Doraemon, so their right to use the image has been revoked, four years after they tried to register it.”

“Wow,” says Ding-Dang, his voice suddenly low and muffled. “They really did that…?”

“Yeah. Like nobody would notice!”

“Well, apparently nobody noticed for four years,” he observes.

“You got that right, Ding-Dang. I bet they wish they had a time machine now!”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #177, 2018.