Scorned (1939)

Itinerant pedlar Takala (Eino Kaipainen) arrives at a thriving industrial town, where he befriends the locals, settles down as a shopkeeper, and soon goes into business as a subcontractor to the local factory. His business partner Toikka (Kaarlo Kartio) doesn’t know when to keep his mouth shut, and Takala is ruined by a business rival, forced to sell off his shares in his own company.

Local girl Verna (Ester Toivonen), with whom Takala has had a turbulent flirtation since she was a teenager, flounces off to sob in her room, and Takala leaves for the big city. Both Takala and Verna end up marrying other people, while the outbreak of the Great War leads to changing fortunes. Toikka makes a pile as a war profiteer, while Takala is literally stabbed in the back by striking workers at his paper mill. He is thus conveniently hospitalised for the upheavals of the Finnish revolution and civil war, ready to return triumphant in a tense negotiation over the mill’s future, in which he and Verna, both now conveniently single again, join forces to vote the evil boss off the board.

Released in March 1939 in the short gap between The February Manifesto and The Activists, and hence somewhat eclipsed by two of the biggest films of 1939, Halveksittu is just as much about the transformations of the 20th century as they are. In a subtle, grass-roots way, it charts Takala’s progress from penniless pedlar to wealthy industrialist, in a liminal period that sees Finland itself go from Russian Grand Duchy to independent republic.

Based on Lauri Haarla’s 1930 novel A Man Scorned (Halveksittu mies) the film was criticised in the media for retaining much of the original’s “hollow pathos” – presumably the newspaper Suomen Sosialidemokraatti would have preferred a few more car chases. A review in Uusi Suomi more cannily noted that the film attacked two distinct sub-sections of Finnish society – the Swedish aristocracy, who are defeated by honest Finns, and the Finnish Reds, who are depicted here as thugs duped by demagogues. Writing and directing the adaptation, Jorma Nortimo jettisons much of the novel’s consideration of Takala’s early life, preferring instead to concentrate on the turbulent 1910s. The resultant story valorises the Goldlilocks-level Finnish middle class that remains the national ideal to this day – not too rich and Swedish, not too poor and Red, a just-right White.

The need to cover two or more decades leads to some desperate costuming decisions, not the least Ester Toivonen’s first appearance dressed as a schoolgirl and shopping for a live squirrel, and early scenes in which she inadvisably tries to act as if she has a mental age of about six. In one scene, she leaps enthusiastically onto her father’s lap, and the actor Yrjö Tuominen visibly winces in pain. Later on, her cosmopolitan but loveless marriage is neatly encapsulated in a single scene, in which she flips dolefully through a photo album of all the places she has been, only for a cigar-chomping Gavelius to come in and call her a silly cow.

One is left feeling rather sorry for the spouses who are jettisoned so that the central couple can rekindle their true love. Siviä (Laila Rihte) is Takala’s loyal shop assistant, who worships him from afar – only we see her simpering in wonder as he faffs around in his shop and leaps over his own counter. Gavelius (Joel Rinne) is the monocled dastard to whom the broken-hearted Verna turns for solace, but his sole purpose seems to be to whisk her away for a three-year hiatus, and then leave her a fortune which will allow her to buy her way back into Takala’s heart. Clad in black, and grey at the temples, Takala and Verna stride arm in arm from the conference room as if marching up the aisle to their own, long-delayed wedding. Reader, find someone who looks at you the way that Ester Toivonen looks at Eino Kaipainen when they’ve just joined forces to enact a hostile take-over of their local saw-mill.

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

Palm Beach Finland

On one of those heady summer days when the thermometer climbs into the low teens, there’s been a killing at “Palm Beach, Finland.” It wasn’t always Palm Beach, of course. But local entrepreneur Jorma Leivo thinks he can turn it into a Mediterranean-style resort, as long as he keeps the lifeguards in skimpy shorts, builds a giant pink flamingo and somehow acquires the Koski family home, which inconveniently sits on the land he needs for the deep-water marina.

Antti Tuomainen’s novel dispels much of its mystery in the opening chapter. We know exactly who has killed a thief in the kitchen of the Koski residence – two thugs sent by Jorma to scare Olivia Koski out of the house she has just inherited. And we also know that Jan, the holidaying maths teacher, new in town, is an undercover police officer investigating the crime. So there are no sudden revelations here – the reader is there to watch as the cast fumble and stumble their way towards a resolution, each of them chasing a nebulous dream that could conceivably be realised with just one smallish cash injection.

Everybody is living on the edge, tantalisingly within reach of a big break. Jorma’s visions of a Mediterranean resort on a Finnish beach merely require the acquisition of one final parcel of land. Chico, the local loser, just needs to do one dirty job in order to get the money for the guitar that will make him a rock star. In the most Finnish of dreams, Olivia has pipes that need re-doing, and builders’ expenses that keep escalating. And now the sinister gangster Holma has rolled into town, offering a five-figure sum for anyone who can help him find out who killed his hapless brother.

Considering that Jorma’s resort has 1980s-themed colours, and chalets named after the cast of a well-known Florida cop show, I am surprised that nobody thought to call this book Niemi Vice. It is, after all, the little cottage on the cape (niemi) that is the epicentre of all the violence, which includes an exploding shed and that most Finnish of torments, an attack on someone’s sauna. In any self-respecting Scandi-Noir, Jan Nyman the investigator would be the hero, but Tuomainen’s novel is an ensemble piece, with none of the characters quite perceiving where they are in a chain of obligations and vendettas, each of them making promises they can’t keep, about money they hope to get, for a service they hope to render.

Much like the work of Reijo Mäki, Tuomainen’s fiction revels in the disconnection between the melodrama of a hard-boiled, American thriller and the jejune realities of Finnish small-town life. These echo the ironies to be found in his The Man Who Died, which revolves around skulduggery in the rare-mushroom world, and Little Siberia, in which ne’er-do-wells in a one-horse town race to acquire a precious meteorite – it has spent aeons traversing the universe, only to end up crashing through the roof of a drunken rally-driver’s Audi. Palm Beach Finland comes similarly loaded with a sense of the absurd, not least in the character of Chico, whose life-changing encounter with the spirit of Bruce Springsteen is brought about by inhaling the toxic fumes from a fire started with painted wooden slats.

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

Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence

“Have you ever bought a disc just for the extras? A couple of times, I’ve caught myself doing just that – ignoring the film and going straight for Brian Blessed’s commentary on Flash Gordon, or the writers’ chat by Palahniuk and Uhls on Fight Club. There are some films I know so well that I don’t feel the need to actually watch them again any time soon, but I am always up for knowing more about them. And in that regard, the new Blu-ray edition of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence is a dream come true.”

Over at All the Anime, I dive deep into the Arrow Academy release of Nagisa Oshima’s Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence, the extras on which are literally three times as long as the film itself.

A Short History of Tokyo

“This is a fascinating historical tour of one of the world’s great cities, exploring Tokyo’s long past with an eye to its present form and its bustling contemporary population. Clements digs deep into place names, and into the wider context of Japan’s long history, to offer an account that visitors to Tokyo – whether first-timers or old regulars – will no doubt find invaluable in helping them to make sense of a city that can sometimes feel overwhelming in its size and vibrant complexity.” – Chris Harding, author of Japan Story: In Search of a Nation, 1850 to the Present

“Concise, engaging history charmingly told by an expert on Japanese culture, who loves the city and knows its neighbourhoods well. Helpful guide to important leaders and notable places in Tokyo history that will delight both armchair travellers and visitors to the city.” – Alisa Freedman, author of Introducing Japanese Popular Culture

“…a volume on the city that offers more than a guidebook while remaining compact.” – Times Literary Supplement

Apparently, A Short History of Tokyo, the updated paperback edition of my 2018 Armchair Traveller’s History of Tokyo, is out now.

Qiu Jin

Executed on this day in history: Qiu Jin.

She read forbidden pamphlets, printed by the revolutionary overseas Chinese organizations in distant Japan, and she wrote The Song of the Precious Sword, in which she accused China of being in a coma. China, she wrote needed to wake up and remember its great past. It needed to listen to the tolling of the bell signified by the “white devils” who occupied Beijing. It needed people like her to risk their lives, pick up swords, shining brighter than jewels “in the light of the sun and moon.”

There! There it was, a sun-moon reference to the lost Ming dynasty – a clarion call to rebels. And if that were not clear enough, the song included a call for suicidal resistance, recalling the infamous assassination attempt on the man who would become the First Emperor.

Don’t you recall Jing Ke’s visit to the court of Qin? / When the map was unrolled, the dagger appeared! / Although he failed to stab him there in the palace / He still managed to rob the evil tyrant of his soul!

Qiu Jin sometimes liked to use a pen-name meaning the Woman Warrior of Mirror Lake, likening herself to a wandering heroine from a fantasy novel. Her writings obsess constantly over swords, using terminology lifted from heroic romances. She idolized the Song dynasty hero Yue Fei, writing at least two songs of her own to the tune of his The River All in Red:

My body will not allow me / To mingle with the men / But my heart is far braver / Than that of a man.

It was in Beijing that Qiu Jin stopped wearing make-up and started attending protests in men’s clothes. Arguing with her wastrel, abusive husband, who wanted to take a concubine for himself, she walked out on him and their two children. “I have pawned my hairpins and my rings,” she wrote, “to travel across the ocean.”

The author Lu Xun, then a young medical student in Japan, witnessed her brandishing a knife before a crowd of Chinese ex-pats and telling them they could stab her with it if she bowed to the Manchus. Qiu Jin published several short-lived magazines and polemic articles in Japan, working towards a theory of revolution that argued that China’s men had failed, and that the country could only become strong again through the education and liberation of its women. Alluding to the medieval feminism of Empress Wu, she wrote that women in ancient times were fully the equals of men. Referring to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, then a hit in translation among Chinese literati, she compared the status of women in China to that of Negro slaves in America.

Women, she said, had to stand up, and that involved unbinding their feet from centuries of oppression. “These… shoes,” she wrote, “condemn us to inaction. This must change!”

In Japan, Qiu Jin began work on an epic poem, Stones of the Jingwei Bird, a reference to a drowned princess, reincarnated as a bird, who drops pebbles one by one into the sea in a vain attempt to fill it. A powerful, on-the-nose allegory of China, it was set in a fantasy realm, whose ancient Yellow kings had once been great men, but whose descendants were increasingly somnolent and distracted, and whose modern successors were in a state of permanent slumber. Their ministers were befuddled and myopic, prepared to bow to the throne even when a foreigner sat on it, looking only to their own self-interest, and pointing at “primitive books” that justified “keeping women in fetters and ensure that they remained stupid.”

Foot-binding, she wrote, was merely the most obvious, painful, pointless hobbling of women in Chinese society, and Chinese society could not see that by holding back its womenfolk – from education and liberation – it was holding back its own ability to resist foreign oppression. And in her fictional allegory, the Queen Mother of the West, ancient Daoist deity, sent a divine squadron of “golden lads and jade maidens” to study in Japan and return to China to save it from itself.

She returned to China, travelling third-class, dressed as a man and wearing a sword for protection. She was fulsome in her praise for Japan, which had proven the power of modernization by winning the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Back among her friends in Shanghai and Shaoxing, she encouraged them to get drunk and perform sword-dances. In 1907, she accepted the post of principal of the Datong School for Girls, where her students would sing lyrics like her Lament for China:

So why do we find it impossible to surpass these white men?

It is because we are locked in a prison of darkness…

Qiu Jin blamed white men for China’s troubles, but she also blamed men in general for ruining women’s potential. In particular, she blamed the Manchus – the symbol of her rebel organization was the character Han, asserting a desire for return of Chinese rule to the Chinese.

From A Brief History of China, by Jonathan Clements.

Ninja Running

“Most ninja lore, despite what hucksters tell you, dates from no earlier than the mid-20th century,” Clements explains. “The first real boom in ninja stories comes after the second World War, when the samurai aristocracy were discredited and left-wing authors and manga creators started celebrating the peasantry, invisible through much of history. It got a huge boost in the early days of television, when Cold War spy thrillers got a localized samurai-era twist. The word ‘ninja’ didn’t even turn up in a Japanese-English dictionary before 1974.”

Over at MEL magazine, I end up as the bad guy once more, ruining everybody’s ninja hopes, interviewed for an article about the phenomenon of “Naruto running.”

Shinji Kajio

“Much of Kajio’s most memorable work focuses on some aspect of time abyss, the collateral victims of time travel in its various forms, the people they leave behind or the investigators who must piece together their origins.”

Over at the Encyclopedia of SF, I write up the remarkable career of Shinji Kajio, who began by writing about War of the Worlds, and focusses recurringly on the mess people left when they went away.

Archiving Movements 2

“I only have one afureco script now, kept on my bookshelves in case I ever need to show someone what they look like. As Kim and Ishida repeatedly observe, so many media materials are disposable, like cels that are often treated like industrial waste, or scripts that are left in piles on the studio floor once the actors have given them voice. I remember once, after a two-day audio recording session on the computer game Halcyon Sun, which I wrote with Simon Jowett, there were enough scripts on the floor to fill a black plastic sack.

“‘I’ll just clear away some of this crap,’ said the audio director, shoving them into a bin. And I remember a brief moment of anguish, and a voice in my head protesting that they were not crap, that they were a story that we had laboured over for months. But I could see, even then, that they were now superfluous to requirements, jettisoned like a first-stage rocket as the work went on its journey to completion.”

Over at All the Anime I remember the bad old days while reviewing the newly published Archiving Movements #2: Short Essays on Materials of Anime and Visual Media.

The Chinese Cinema Book

“Several years ago, I was approached by a well-known film company with a Chinese subsidiary that was in the market for animation feature scripts. They needed a feature project that would allow them to spend some of the capital that was effectively trapped in China, and for that, they needed a script with global appeal but a Chinese subject.

“It could have been the opportunity of a lifetime for me, and I had plenty of ideas, but every single one of them was defeated by the spectre of what the censor might say – that intractable hydra that refuses to allow dissent, superstition, discussion of half of the things that make China remotely interesting.

“I wanted to retell Aladdin in its ‘original’ Xinjiang setting. I wanted to make an ethnically-accurate Mulan, suffused with Xianbei weirdness. I wanted to tell stories of the Taiping religious fanatics, or the pirate king who stood up to the Manchus. But every idea came with potential triggers – too tribal, too controversial, too likely to be shut down for ‘historical nihilism’, that catch-all Party category for any historian who dares to question current assumptions. Those same censors later turned around and waved through Pixar’s Coco because ghosts are okay after all if they have hearts, or something. Eventually, I gave up even trying.”

Over at All the Anime, I reminisce about what might have been, while reviewing Bloomsbury’s new Chinese Cinema Book.