My Son the Consul-General (1940)

Hard-up student Inkeri (Helena Kara) wins a trip to That Fancy Stockholm, and in order not to stick out on the ship, borrows some clothes and accessories from her rich friend Kaisu (Lea Joutsena). She does everything she can to attract the attentions of the handsome Taavi Takkulainen (Tauno Majuri) but he is immune to her charms, largely because he recognises her borrowed cigarette case as a Korri family item, and assumes she is an irritating rich girl, as opposed to what she actually is, which is an irritating poor one. After this rather pointless case of mistaken identity, the young couple hit it off, and agree to meet the next day at the Grand Hotel, where Taavi’s brother Albert (Uuno Laakso), the Consul General, also happens to be staying.

In a series of farcical set-ups, betraying the origins of this film in a 1934 theatrical piece by The King of Poetry and the Migratory Bird’s Elsa Soini, everybody manages to miss each other, and someone ends up holding a fur coat like the Prince in Cinderella. Inkeri takes a job at the Takkulainen household, tutoring the family’s youngest son Erkki (Hannes Häyrinen). Confusions continue as the pushy mother of the Takkulainens tries to manoeuvre Inkeri into marrying Albert in order to increase his prospects as an international diplomat. Inkeri is batted between the brothers like a giggly tennis ball, before eventually Taavi wins through, dashing to her hospital room in the belief that she is dead, only to discover that she is perfectly fine and ready to hear his confession of undying love.

All this might sound rather humdrum, and indeed, on its later TV broadcast, the critic Ilkka Juonala rightly dismissed it as “a rather routine Finnish comedy that drives along the same old safe and familiar roads.” But over the Christmas season of 1940, this mediocre farce garnered oodles of praise in the nation’s newspapers. Kauppalehti singled out its “relentless pace”, Uusi Suomi called it “a triumph of cultural comedy” and Aamulehti called it a “fast-paced and funny film.”

As suggested by the fact that the titular consul doesn’t get the girl in the film, the movie version differed substantially from the original play, to the extent of marrying Inkeri off to a different brother. It also adds an entirely new first act – the play took place solely in the Takkulainen office and library, whereas for the film version, writer-director Ilmari Unho throws in that whole Swedish sequence at the beginning, presumably as a means of getting everybody away on a tax-deductible, fur-coat-wearing jolly to Stockholm amid wartime austerity measures. The opening half-hour, in fact, extends the running time to 109 minutes, which made it something of a whopper among many “features” of the era that struggled to make it past the 60-minute mark. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cast’s sly Swedish trip that is the most interesting part of this film, with glimpses of shipboard life before the Stockholm ferry became little more than a karaoke booze-cruise. The bulk of the film, however, was conspicuously shot in Helsinki, with only a few scattered Stockholm exteriors to suggest that the crew even got off the boat.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.  He is watching all the Finnish films so you don’t have to.

Sisu (2022)

In 1944, a company of Nazis flee across northern Finland towards the Norwegian border, burning anything they encounter. On the way, they relieve a passing prospector of his saddle bags of newly excavated gold nuggets, unaware that he is Aatami Korpi (Jorma Tommila) a veteran of the Winter War and a fearsome commando. Armed with little more than a pickaxe and legendary Finnish sisu (which is supposedly untranslatable), Korpi hounds the Nazis across the unforgiving terrain.

Director Jalmari Helander’s previous Big Game was an outrageous action movie featuring Samuel L. Jackson as the US president, on the run in Lapland after terrorists bring down Air Force One, and forced to rely on the ingenuity of a teenage Finnish woodsman. But as I said at the time, it was a film about a “Finland of the mind”, shot overseas amid distinctly un-Finnish mountains as if he had no faith in the cinematic appeal of his homeland.

In Sisu, which seems liable to be released in many territories under the title Immortal, Helander returns to gory Hollywood-influenced action. One suspects there is an image board somewhere in his office, crowded with several iconic set pieces from the Indiana Jones films, a few stills from Mad Max: Fury Road and First Blood, and a bunch of old-school war movies and quite possibly the Norwegian Ofelas (a.k.a. Pathfinder). But he also clings to the real Lapland as his location, with Kjell Lagerroos’ cinematography pausing for long, loving vistas of the fells around Utsjoki and Inari, awash with gorgeous autumn colours, in what must have been a punishing shoot to seize each day’s limited light.

As Korpi, leading man Jorma Tommila barely has two lines in the whole film, instead carrying the whole thing through sheer force of grit and will. He is aided by a supporting cast of sufficiently dastardly Nazis (largely played by Finnish actors, but speaking English to help all those foreign cinema-goers, and dying in a number of increasingly visceral and gory ways), some plucky Finnish women, the obligatory dog in danger, and a score by Juri Seppä and Tuomas Wäinölä that steals the high-noon knells of many a Western, and ominous droning that recalls Mongolian throat-singing.

There are some corner-cutting VFX to add widescreen whistles and bells, including shots of Ivalo in flames and a war-torn Helsinki, but aside from Tommila himself and his increasingly ludicrous refusal to give up, the real star is Lapland, which Helander has chronicled before in his breakout Rare Exports, but never with quite so much loving attention.

As for “sisu” itself, the opening credits have a go at defining it: ““SISU on hampaat irvessä pystyyn nostettu nyrkki. Se on sitkeää uhmakkuutta kohtalon edessä. SISU syttyy, kun viimeinenkin toivonkipinä on hiipunut.” Sisu is when you raise your fist with your teeth clenched. It is stubborn defiance in the face of fate. Sisu lights up when the last spark of hope has faded.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland. Sisu is what keeps him going back to try terrible Finnish Asian-fusion buffets.


As if the acting world needed any more drama, Hellena Taylor, the voice of Bayonetta in the games and anime spin-off, was made to re-audition for her own part in Bayonetta 3, and then given such a low-ball offer that she walked.

Taylor is by no means the first actor to find out she is replaceable. When he was shunted aside for Kiefer Sutherland in the Metal Gear Solid franchise, David Hayter was similarly annoyed. He, too, was asked to read for the part that had previously thought of as his, on the grounds that maybe he had “aged out” of the role. Such a concept would be particularly insulting to Taylor, since, without getting into specifics about a lady’s age, she is still seven years younger than Atsuko Tanaka, the Japanese voice of Bayonetta (and Ghost in the Shell’s Motoko Kusanagi), who is still in the role.

In an online video post, Taylor noted that the Bayonetta franchise had made $450 million, “not including merchandise.” She enumerated her various places of training and education, a total of seven and a half years at drama schools, and observed that the final offer for her to provide all the lines, shouts, and barks for the next game in the series, was a buy-out of $4,000 – no royalties, just guild minimum for a single eight-hour day.

What’s in play here is the timeless argument over whether voice actors are above- or below-the-line talent. Some of you, and some producers, might be thinking that all you’re buying is some guy to come in off the street and yell a bit. On my first dubbing job, after some idiot (me) sent home one of the actresses early, we had to rope in a runner, literally drag her away from making coffee, to shout “THE TOTEMS HAVE COMBINED!” It wasn’t Shakespeare.

But for the last generation, voice acting has become part of a media mix. Certainly in anime, and also in games, it provides a chunk of the content that magazines write about. It provides bodies to be onstage at conventions; human beings, as stand-ins for cartoon characters, who can sign your video boxes and hold forth with anecdotes. The industry has spent 20 years trilling about this actor or that actor bringing their talent to a role – their voice and wisdom and (sometimes) physicality in motion capture. And if $4,000 still sounds like a lot of money to you, remember that might be the only work someone sees in six months.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #225, 2022.

The Smoking Guitar

The valleys are so narrow that they are usually in shadow even when the sun is scorching on the red cliffs above. Then, the sun moves into the right position, and suddenly the moisture bakes off the wooden roof slats in clouds of steam, as if the building has caught fire.

The Lisu derive their surnames from their former tribal designations, which were moieties of Snakes, Lions and sundry other animals. Which is how I come to spend the morning with Mr Pheasant, who is here to teach me how to make a crossbow, and who arrives wearing a goatskin that makes him look like a troll doll. He starts with a log, and whittles it swiftly down into the shape of the body with an axe and a machete. Any wood will do for the body, but the bow has to be wild mulberry – domestic mulberry is never flexible enough. The string is made from hemp bark, and is sharp enough that I cut my fingers trying to draw it back. The quarrels, or darts really, are bamboo dowels the size and shape of a chopstick, fletched with a twist of bamboo leaf.

Mr Pheasant only speaks Lisu, so is not a whole lot of fun as an interviewee, but he has been well briefed by the Naxi town tourist adviser, arriving not only with all his raw materials, but with “one he prepared earlier”, so that we can leapfrog ahead in the tiresome sanding scene to get everything done before lunch.

There are so many comedy opportunities for the target. A Chairman Mao poster? A picture of Jason Statham (inexplicably found on the front of a giveaway sexual health magazine). The camera assistant suggests a plastic bottle of water, which might entertainingly spurt out its contents if shot. But in the end we plump for a boring mat with a target daubed on in charcoal. Both Mr Pheasant and I hit it with ease, while the director of photography cowers behind his camera, worried about the likelihood of me shooting him in the head.

At lunch, the tourist officer observes with astonishment that “the Foreigner” is able to use chopsticks, rather ignoring the fact that (a) everybody else around the table is also a foreigner, from Singapore, and (b) I have been eating Chinese food since before he was born. Nothing puts things in perspective after your third academic degree like some hayseed expressing surprise that you can use cutlery.

After lunch we are dragged back to the same courtyard in the hills. The tourist office has plainly decided it is convenient, as indeed it is, but it creates headaches for our director of photography as he tries to shoot it so that half the episode is not spent looking around the same shed. This also involves a log, from which the neck and body of the si xian qing are carved in a single piece. Mr Bee, however, is persuaded to hurry things along after a few axe blows, by lighting up his smoke-billowing chain saw, and making swift work of the difficult bits. He hollows out the base, and sands it down, before fixing the front to it using bamboo pins that turn out to be the remnants of the morning’s crossbow darts.

I don’t seem to be doing a lot today, but I don’t know if that’s because the director has lost the will to live, or if I am just getting better at this. Certainly, I haven’t had to take 20 takes to get something right this week. Instead, I pop up my head, do a piece to camera in one or two takes, and then go back to the sidelines for another twenty minutes until some other stage in the process is reached. It feels like I am not doing enough, but I counted back through my appearances on camera today, and I am still saying plenty of stuff.

Mr Bee ties guitar strings to the body by looping them through a bent piece of fence wire, and then makes a bridge out of a spare piece of wood. Then he heats a poker in a fire and starts burning through the balsa-like wood of the front, tuning and strumming, then poking another hole, and repeat. Moment by moment, the sound becomes fuller and the resonations stronger. Suddenly, he drops the poker and begins to play a tune, and the guitar is finished, smoke still curling up from the newly-bored holes.

Our sound man is ready with his boom mike to pick up clean audio of the new instrument’s first tune, as the alien Lisu melody fills the courtyard, wisps of smoke rising from the guitar along with the music. This gives us a segment from our Lisu episode complete, but hopefully something that will lead into the dance ceremony shooting tomorrow, and also a music track that we don’t have to pay for.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E04 (2017).

An Unhappy New Year


On 8 February 1644, the first day of the Chinese New Year, the ministers of the Emperor of Lofty Omens woke before dawn and journeyed through the streets of Beijing. At the break of day, in keeping with tradition that stretched back for centuries, they would greet their 33-year-old ruler, whom the gods had selected to reign over the entire world. Then, the assembled throng would welcome in the new year, the 4341st since China’s first, legendary kings, and entreat the gods and ancestors to bring them good fortune.

The city, however, was quiet. Many of its inhabitants had succumbed to a harsh outbreak of disease the previous year, and according to one diarist, ‘no babies had been born in the city for the previous six months.’ Not all the ministers arrived at the palace on time. Those that did found the gates jammed shut, and were only able to open them with some difficulty. Eventually, they found the Emperor of Lofty Omens, in the Hall of the Central Ultimate. He was weeping.

China was doomed. The Dynasty of Brightness, the Ming, which had ruled the world’s largest nation for centuries, had lost its hold on power. A Confucian scholar would have been scandalised at the low attendance that morning; without a full complement of ministers, how could they perform the necessary ceremonies? But not even the Emperor himself bore a grudge against the absentees, or those who arrived late, wheezing breathless apologies. No amount of prayers and ceremony would change the inevitable, and no sacrifice, however elaborate, would attract the ancestors’ attention from the afterlife.

Besides, the Emperor could not afford it. Ever since the disastrous reign of his father, the nation’s budgets had spiralled wildly out of control. Attempts to curtail imperial luxuries were not enough, fundamental cornerstones of civilization had gone to ruin. The Grand Canal to the south was falling into disrepair, and the postal system had been shut down. Smallpox had wrought havoc among the farming communities, who struggled in vain to tease crops from the earth – though few realised at the time, the middle of the 17th century gripped the world in a mini-ice age. The same weather conditions that were then freezing over the Thames in London were also bringing deadly cold to the lands north of the Great Wall.

The Emperor was fated to fall. While the Great Wall still held, a new enemy struck from within. Starved of food and decimated by disease, a distant inland province rose up in revolt. An army of disaffected soldiers and peasants, began to march on the capital city, led by the rebel Li Zicheng.


Li Zicheng, formerly one of the post-riders who delivered mail along China’s once-great roads, had been obsessed with seizing control of the Empire from his youth. Not even losing an eye in battle dimmed his ardour, as one old prophecy had predicted the Empire would fall to a man with only one eye. His previous dealings with other members of the imperial family had been less than favourable. During his campaigns, he not only killed the Emperor’s uncle the Prince of Fu, but drank his blood, mixing it into his venison broth. Li Zicheng was the leader of a horde of almost 100,000 soldiers, boiling across the country towards Beijing, gathering still greater numbers as peasants flocked to its tax-free banners.

On New Year’s Day, as the Ming Emperor sat sobbing in his palace, Li Zicheng announced his intention to found a new dynasty. The Dynasty of Brightness, he said, had fallen. Long live the Da Shun, the Dynasty of Great Obedience.

With the usurper Li Zicheng advancing ever closer to Beijing, the Emperor of Lofty Omens knew it was time for drastic measures. Drunk and disoriented, he ordered for the Ming Heir Apparent to be smuggled out of the city. He gathered the rest of his family about him and informed them that it was time to die. Some of his wives and concubines had already committed suicide, and were found hanged or poisoned in their chambers. Others had fled. There was no such option for the immediate family of the Emperor, who attacked his own children with a sword. The 15-year-old Princess Imperial held out her right arm to stay his attack, and the Emperor hacked it off. The maimed girl fled screaming through the halls, leaving a trail of blood. Her younger sisters were not so lucky, and both died where they stood, stabbed by their own father. The Emperor then went to the base of nearby hill, where he wrote a final message in his own blood, before hanging himself as Li Zicheng’s army drew closer. Later writers would claim the Emperor’s last words blamed his ministers and his own ‘small virtue’ for the collapse of the Ming Dynasty, and exhorted the rebels to spare his people from suffering. In fact, the Emperor’s bleeding finger simply traced the plaintive, spidery characters ‘Son of Heaven.’ His body lay undiscovered for three days.

Extract from Coxinga and the Fall of the Ming Dynasty, by Jonathan Clements, available in the UK and US.

Being Boiled

Today we are out in the countryside near Suzhou, amid lakes and rice fields, to talk to Mr Gu, one of the last people in the area who can be bothered to raise silkworms. There’s enough time in a year to raise five generations, but there simply isn’t enough demand for his silk anymore, so he’s dropped it to just one.

The farmhouse is grotty and ramshackle, all clucking chickens, yappy dogs and mangy cats, although when we send our drone over the top of the mulberry trees, there is a fantastic vista of fairytale Chinese Lakeland.

Indoors, Mr Gu takes a handful of silk cocoons and throws them into boiling water. Before long, they start to unravel, and he teases out a few strands and begins winding. Then he lets me take over: each cocoon is wound with 1.4 kilometres of thread, in a single strand. They look like spider silk, but easily take the punishment of being dragged out of boiling water and wound on a bobbin. Mr Gu says he boils 20,000 cocoons a year, which would make a strand of thread long enough to go around the world.

He has been a little spooked by the crew showing up “with a foreigner” – in fact, most of the crew are foreigners from Singapore, of course, but he means me. This has led him to call the local propaganda office, who have in turn sent a flunky to lurk around telling us that we should be filming the nice bridge in Nanxun. He’s getting on my nerves, not the least because he’s one of those Chinese who talk about me in the third person, as in “does he take sugar?” even though he has been told twice that I am a visiting professor in a Chinese university.

The director and I argue over another piece to camera – a one-minute monologue about changing conditions in the silk trade that I need to say eleven times, without putting a word wrong, while wandering through a grove of mulberry trees. Did Jili silk win a gold medal or a gold award at the Great Exhibition? What year was it in? Should we just say “19th century”, or will that only confuse people?

An interviewee can say anything they like on camera — in a phenomenological sense, we are interested in what they believe to be true. But a National Geographic presenter has to be academically robust, which means anything I say has to be backable by two printed sources — not something I read on the internet, something I can point to in a book if it is queried by Standards and Practises four months later. This isn’t really a problem if you’re in a library, but i’s a huge deal if you are standing in a field somewhere outside Shanghai, and asked to come up with a sixty-second speech out of thin air. My ability to say things like “I reckon we’ll find a paragraph on this in Hyde (1984)” is one of the things that got me this job.

We do get a moment with the nice bridge in Nanxun, an O-shaped arch over the canal, high enough to allow barges loaded with raw silk to pass through on their way to the south and the silk-weaving cities that would make it all into textiles. I must gabble a piece to camera against the failing light, while a dozen twats assemble nearby to peer through the viewfinder and/or talk loudly to their mates about what might be going on, when what is clearly going on is that I am trying to record a piece to camera. We get it on the fourth take, with the sun setting, and the director makes me run around the canal bank and up to the bridge so I can walk across it. To get there, I have to parkour across a building site and, at one point, grip the window ledge on a restaurant, pretending to be nonchalant as a bunch of surprised diners stare back at me.

Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E04 (2016).

Shall We Dance? (2004)

“We need a witness to our lives. There’s a billion people on the planet… I mean, what does any one life really mean? But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything. The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things… all of it, all of the time, every day. You’re saying ‘Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it. Your life will not go un-witnessed because I will be your witness’.”

Quite by accident, I caught the 2004 remake of Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance, with Richard Gere standing in for Koji Yakusho, and Winnipeg standing in for Chicago standing in for Tokyo. It’s often a shot-for-shot remake of the original, complete with its celebration of platonic friendships and quirky obsessions, but Audrey Wells made several alterations to Suo’s script that I list here because that’s the sort of nonsense this blog covers.

1: It features a man torn between Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez, which is an unanswerable conundrum.

2: One of the characters is eventually revealed as gay.

3: Stanley Tucci, as the secret office dancer, gets a moment in which he twirls one of his tormenters, in a sort of kung fu dance vindication.

4: A scene is inserted in which Richard Gere conspicuously chooses his wife and his marriage over his hobby, only for her to insist that he goes off and indulges his hobby. It’s a little bit of a replay of the ending of An Officer & a Gentleman, and I suspect deliberately so.

5: Miss MItzi, the dance teacher, has her own redemption arc in which she is revealed as a struggling alcoholic who is weaned off the booze by her students’ successes.

Otherwise, it retains much of the humour and the narrative beats of the original, as well as two pointless voice-overs that could have been oh-so-easily shot as real scenes to show-not-tell. Notably, however, Gere and Sarandon have two children in this remake, not the only child of the Japanese original.

Transformations in Chinese Food

“Up to the Muslim Quarter for biang biang noodles for lunch. We luck into a relatively deserted Muslim restaurant where I can talk to camera about the history of this particular dish – international as it is, with American chilis and tomatoes, carrots and cumin from westwards on the silk road, noodles made from wheat, etc. The restaurant staff are also not camera-shy at all, and keen to let Alvin the cameraman film them at work. It is a national holiday, so outside it is utter chaos. But we get lots of footage in the can.”

So I wrote in my diary on the first day of filming on Route Awakening season two in 2015, but this passage, and the photo snapped in an upstairs room, are a historical record of a book as it started to take shape in my head. That sentence, in a sense, was the first to be written in what would become The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals, a subject I will be discussing once more on Monday 16th January in a Zoom lecture for the Gloucester Historical Association.

Monster Kids

“What really comes across is Dockery’s enthusiasm for telling a story about something that, for him as a child and for many of his likely readers, was initially just a hobby. In his investigation of all sorts of areas that ten-dollar wordsmiths might describe as historicity, technological determinism, and industrial economics, he provides his readers with a tantalising, alluring glimpse of the kind of fun you can have when you get to study what you enjoy.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Daniel Dockery’s lively account of the irresistible rise of Pokemon, and can’t resist the opportunity to also plug something that isn’t in the book, which is the terrifying Russian Pikachu song pictured above.