Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda (1941)

Antreas (Olavi Reimas) is a blind man who sells brushes in the Helsinki marketplace. He charms everybody around him with his sunny disposition, including his neighbours, whom he invites in for the occasional booze-up. But Antreas is at the centre of an unwitting love-triangle, pining for the yuppie secretary Jolanda (Kirsti Hurme), and unaware that his neighbour’s daughter Martta (Kaija Rahola) harbours unrequited feelings for him. Jolanda, however, is busy climbing the social ladder in search of a suitably placed husband, and has no time for the kind-hearted salesman.

Matters change when Antreas turns out to be a millionaire, thanks to the discovery of a vein of silver ore on his late brother’s Australian farm. Jolanda suddenly changes her tune, agrees to Antreas’ previously spurned advances, and betroths herself to him before any other gold- (sorry) silver-digger can get her claws in. She then sets about busily spending his money, while embarking on an increasingly intimate series of liaisons with the musician Reimar (Kille Oksanen).

Suomi-Filmi’s melodrama begins with a bewitching slice-of-life of Helsinki’s harbour-side marketplace, where to this day you can be cheerily over-charged for a sausage. It’s as if director Valentin Vaala and cinematographer Eino Heino are drunk with enthusiasm for the restoration of normality after the Winter War, cramming in little bits of real-world detail just for the hell of it. This also comes across in some of the blocking, for which their sound recordist seems ill-prepared to capture scraps of dialogue amid throngs of students – Martta is supposedly a starry-eyed teenager, although, with the best will in the world, the 31-year-old Kaija Rahola has trouble not looking like one of the lecturers.

A kindly constable (Aku Peltonen) warns the blind Antreas that time is marching on, and hands him a fallen brush-head. Antreas thanks him and cheerily calls out; näkemiin (“see you later”), which the constable acknowledges with a melancholy smile. Much like a country struggling to come to terms with a hard-fought armistice, Antreas puts a brave face on his condition, and on his recurrent self-medication through alcohol, smiling unapologetically as he tap-tap-taps his way into the Alko store to buy a restorative tipple.

Shooting on Antreas and the Sinful Jolanda started in the summer of 1940, for some pick-ups in Helsinki, Turku and Nantaali, although as the year wore on, some of the later shoots had to move indoors. One sequence in a backyard has been plainly filmed in a studio. They did, however, risk the weather for a location shoot on Tehtaankatu in central Helsinki (home to today’s Russian embassy), where a kind-hearted passer-by did not realise that filming was underway, and tried to persuade the “blind” Olavi Reimas not to go into a booze shop. The film also seems notable for an animated credits sequence in which the stars’ names write themselves out in swirling calligraphy – something I don’t remember seeing previously in Finnish film, although possibly I have merely not noticed it before.

Early set-ups celebrate a blue-collar world of hard work and chirpy enthusiasm, not unlike the plucky Brits gurning their way through the Blitz. As all too commonly seems to happen in Finnish film, the antagonist gets all the best looks and the best lines, while the supposed romantic lead is forced to drip about on the sidelines. Fresh from her simmering bad-girl role in In the Fields of Dreams (1940), Kirsti Hurme delineates Jolanda’s “sinful” nature in several discreet tics and mannerisms, particularly her arched eyebrows at the banter of her office colleagues, and her surreptitious checking of her make-up. She is harshly lit in her scenes with Antreas, artfully imparting her features with a sinister cast that only we can see as she whispers sweet nothings, and even managing to turn a song about light-hearted fun into a sinister harbinger of doom.

It’s left to the ever-faithful Martta to take Antreas to Turku, where a German doctor is conveniently able to restore his sight – not for the last time in the 1940s, Germany is presented as a kindly and tech-savvy ally of Finland. The pair return to Helsinki, where Antreas pretends that he is still blind, although he now literally sees the terrible way that Jolanda is carrying on with Reimar – she is trying to get Antreas to sign a cheque for far more than the amount she tells him, and even openly snogging Reimar in front of him. Confronting Jolanda with her plan to swindle him out of 300,00 marks, he sends her packing, although he forgives Reimar, who earnestly refuses to accept a cheque written in bad faith. In a lovely moment, it is only when Antreas bends down to pick up the crumpled cheque that Jolanda realises he has been able to see through her dastardly plot.

Martta invites Antreas to the garden to see some puppies (no, really), whose eyes have just opened. “Only today have my eyes finally opened,” Antreas says. “And you, Martta, are the first person who begins to look beautiful in my eyes.”

The Finnish press in its day was largely approving, acknowledging that it was a difficult time and a difficult conditions to be squeezing out a dramedy. Even Toini Aaltonen in the Suomen Sosiaaldemokratti observed that for all its “naïve emotion”, there was something profound in the way that it focused on what was truly important to Antreas. Money is no object – Antreas literally hands Reimar all the cash that Jolanda has been trying to obtain by underhand means – but it’s more important to him that he has the love of a good woman. Olavi Vesterdahl in Aamulehti was similarly impressed with a film he found “psychologically interesting.” I concur with Salama Simonen in Uusi Suomi, who enjoyed the “countless small details” in both filming and acting that made this more than the sum of its parts, even if the idea of a life-changing disability that can so easily be waved away is liable to leave many 21st-century viewers uncomfortable.

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

Lapsang Souchong

The upheavals of the Manchu invasion are held to be at least partly responsible for an innovation in Chinese tea. Forced to delay their harvest until relatively late in the year, farmers in Wuyi, in Fujian, sped up the packing process for the “small grade” fourth and fifth leaves, lower quality than the three leaves of the first flush, by roasting them over pine-wood fires, inadvertently imparting them with a smoky aftertaste. The locals thought it was awful, but soon found some foreigners to offload it on. This “Lapu Mountain Small Grade” (lapu-shan xiao zhong) retained its southern Chinese pronunciation abroad, as lapsang souchong. Centuries later, it would become Winston Churchill’s favourite tea – although nobody seems to have told him he was drinking the discount option.

From The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals, by Jonathan Clements.

The Two Du’s

The torments of a Chinese breakfast – a big band version of Hark the Herald Angels sing, and the constant hilarity that Chinese newsreaders derive from Brexit. Today, Theresa May (Teleisha Mei – Special Thunder Insect Plum) witters away, and Jeremy Corbyn (Jielimi Ke’erbin – Outstanding League Rice Branch Seoul Guest) plainly and clearly calls her a “stupid woman.” The first true words spoken in parliament in months.

We are in Jingzhou, where once was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Chu. Conquered by the First Emperor, its soldiers and surviving nobles came within a hair’s breadth of inheriting the ruins of his short-lived dynasty in the turmoil that followed his death. They lost, of course, to the people of Han, but it was such a close call that the conflict is replayed in every Chinese chess game, in which the sides are named Han and Chu. Nobody knows which one is which until the end.

Jingzhou was also a major player in the Three Kingdoms era, and power base of Guang Yu, the red-faced warrior whose life has attracted so many tall tales that he was deified in the middle ages, and is now the Chinese god of war. A massive statue of him, and I mean massive, at 190 feet, looms over the town, wielding his famous Green Dragon Crescent Blade.

I would like to see a bit more of Jingzhou, but we have only stopped here on towards the end of our thousand-mile drive across China. Our fourth episode takes place in Nanchang, six hours to the east, but part of it will involve discussion of antique restoration, here at the national centre for lacquer repair.

They don’t just do lacquer. They also do silk, bamboo and wood, but we’re here to talk about lacquer because that will somehow be the capstone to a storyline that I have yet to film. The institute’s director, chemistry graduate Mr Feng, is oddly cagey about being interviewed, but after lunch suddenly announces that he is ready. He chats to me about Vindolandia, the place on Hadrian’s Wall where archaeologists unearthed letters from Roman soldiers, thanking their mums for sending them warm socks, and talks me through the process of preserving ancient artefacts. The basement of the institute is a shallow swimming pool, used to keep precious items away from oxygen until they are ready to be fixed and dried.

The lacquer restoration is in the hands of the two Du’s, a father and son team of artists, who wasted their lives getting fine art degrees, and then discovered a rich, salaried gravy train repairing and restoring two-thousand-year-old lacquer ware. Their black and red Han dynasty cups, tables and bowls are truly beautiful, and their studio is scattered with replicas that they have knocked up experimentally, to work out precise paint compositions and the number of likely lacquer coats required. One rather nice box turns out to be made from a base of hemp cloth, shaped and then coated with ten layers of lacquer.

Outside, there is a lake like glass, which makes the Buick look good driving along beside it. We film me in the car, talking about how I have come to Jingzhou looking for answers, although since I have come from Nanchang, where we don’t actually go until tomorrow, I am yet to work out what the questions are.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E04 (2019).

Bruce Lee at Golden Harvest

I know sometimes it must look as if I sit around all day doing nothing but Blu-ray commentaries, but that’s not the case. The current flurry of announcements are all things that I did months ago, but they all seem to be happening at once.

And this week’s is my commentary track for Fist of Fury, included in the forthcoming Arrow box set Bruce Lee at Golden Harvest. For which I can promise you all sorts of unexpected insights, including Chinese history as revealed through men’s fashion, the imperialist messages hidden in a simple advert, and some forensic criticism of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen.

The Rise and Fall of ComiXology

Conglomerate acquires fancy company. Conglomerate incorporates app in its own tech. Conglomerate announces most employees of the original app are now surplus to requirements. It’s hardly news to anyone, or even to NEO readers who may remember similar nights of the long knives over at Manga Entertainment, sorry, Funimation, sorry Crunchyroll. But last month’s announcement that Amazon would be shedding 18,000 jobs, including a bunch of executions in corporate and technology, and notably 75% of the employees at its ComiXology division.

Amazon is looking to streamline its operations, and that apparently means ankling its ComiXology staff in a three-step purge. Behind the scenes, the writing has been on the wall for the last year, ever since the ComiXology comics-reader app, acquired by Amazon 2014, was integrated within the Kindle software in February 2022, much to the ire of many long-term readers.

This is all part of a series of retrenchments and reconsiderations in the digital market, as the bosses who’ve thrown all that money at acquisitions try to work out how to make them pay. We’ve seen whispers of it elsewhere – Amazon, for example, has already shuttered its Japanese anime “studio” because it realised that it could just subcontract pre-existing studios instead of luring them into an expensive building and handing out pens. And Netflix, of course, has been trying to get its head around a business model that amounts to a worldwide pyramid scheme that has to have new members signing on to justify the ever-expanding budgets. Now, it’s looking at offering reduced-fee subscriptions with ads (in my view, a backward step that makes it just like any other channel), and trying to reduce the number of people leeching off relatives’ and friends’ accounts.

As for ComiXology, it was a massive success story in the comics market, particularly since the inauguration in 2016 of ComiXology Unlimited, which offered thousands of comics and manga to subscribers. But what Amazon really wanted was a success for ComiXology Originals, a 2018 initiative to create new comics that Amazon owned. The margins are lower on offering access to other people’s products, and that’s why, now that it’s covered by Kindle, Amazon is edging so many of the comics tech specialists out of its staff. Until, that is, some widget stops working and it have to lure them back at freelance rates.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #228, 2023.

Walking the Pattern

Nuo opera, claims the ebullient Qin Falai, has been around for 6,000 years. It is a theatre that has grown out of shamanic dances, maybe of the ancient Ba people who once lived in Sichuan, and preserves many elements of ancient culture, quite possibly the Yelang culture that once flourished in ancient times in what is now Guizhou, where we are today.

Or quite possibly not. He talks me through a long mural detailing the greats of the tradition, and his own ancestors, and it becomes plain that whatever Nuo used to be, it has undergone cataclysmic transformations over the centuries. Originally a ritual pattern of steps designed to cast out demons in the New Year, it was changed beyond recognition by its encounters with Daoism and Buddhism, which dumped a whole load of new stories and concerns on top of it. The Tang dynasty, notably the age of Empress Wu, threw in female practitioners for the first time, and may have been when Nuo was exported to Japan as No, with which it has many striking similarities. In the Ming dynasty, it supposedly became more theatrical, incorporating skits and stunts, and thereby becoming so intertwined with the usual Chinese opera that my bumper Dictionary of Chinese Theatre doesn’t actually have an entry for it.

The last figure on the mural is a wizened old man blowing a cow-horn trumpet, and Mr Qin’s breezy lecture falters. “This is my father,” he says. “He was my father and my teacher, and he suffered so much. In the Cultural Revolution, they broke into our house and destroyed everything we had spent three hundred years trying to preserve. We were beaten and we were persecuted.”

Tears begin to roll down his face as he recounts his family’s sufferings for being regarded as religious or superstitious in a time when China crusaded against the “Four Olds”. I pat his arm in vain as he weeps.

“I put him here, on this wall of gods,” he says, “not because he was my father. Not because he was my teacher. But because of everything he went through.”

I console him in the shadows and see that we are still filming. But the director is shaking her head. There is no way we will be allowed to broadcast much of this footage, mainly because it soon becomes clear that the most recent attacks on the QIn family were in the supposedly enlightened 1980s.

Mr Qin wants to teach me the Pattern of the Eight Directions, a mystic dance of footsteps designed to lock a shaman in some sort of protective force-field. You must enter from the north, step to the middle, then the south, then north, then east, then west, then… maybe the middle again, then diagonally to the… I already forget. But this goes on for a while, and once you have started into the Pattern, you can’t stop, and you can’t get down.

Oh, right, I forgot to mention that. In order to train pupils to step at the correct length of pace, the training for the Pattern of the Eight Directions is conducted on top of a set of nine stubby pillars, so the crew have a good laugh watching me teeter and trip, while Mr Qin stands at the side with a pointy stick, shouting “NOW LEAP TO THE PILLAR OF THUNDER! LEFT, YOU IDIOT! NOW LEAP TO THE PILLAR OF WIND. NO! NOT THAT, THAT’S THE PILLAR OF FIRE!”

Having thus had my brain thoroughly scrambled, we move onto a performance, which is apparently is the World-Creating Dance of Kaishan, Divider of Mountains. This involves donning a mask unsurprisingly like that of a Noh demon, waving an axe around and proclaiming that one is going to Open the Mountains in various directions, and possibly fly about a bit. Mr Qin confuses things a bit by dropping into Guizhou dialect on occasion, but the text seems confused already. “Opening the Mountains” (kaishan) is sometimes a reference to the Pangenitor deity of Chinese folk religion, and sometimes a reference to the arrival of Buddhism in the sticks, but sometimes also a reference to Yin Kaishan, one of the faithful lieutenants who supported the grab for power of the first Tang Emperor, and whose alleged grandson was the famous Tripitaka. So we’re mixing two religions and one historical figure, while spinning in circles and pretending to be a bird. It’s all in a day’s work for a Clements. I’ve had weirder Tuesday afternoons.

“You’ll stay for dinner, of course,” he says. “I’ve already killed a chicken.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S05E05 (2019).

Second Edition

Now available to pre-order from Amazon US and Amazon UK.

“This new edition has been revised and updated throughout, with full colour illustrations and new chapters addressing the rising economic power of otaku subcultures, the development of anime in China, and the transformation of distribution and exhibition accompanying the dominance of Netflix and other globalised streaming platforms.”

Helsinki Crimes (2022)

Timo Harjunpää is a dour, distracted detective who commutes into work on the train from the Helsinki suburbs. He has to deal with a series of quirky crimes, including a policeman’s son on a killing spree, a millionaire pushed over the edge by aggressively woke tormenters, and a male prostitute accused of murder. Meanwhile, Harjunpää’s wife hectors him about “never” spending time with his family, but does so while they’re at the beach, and continues complaining about it while they are sailing around in a yacht.

Sneaking without fanfare onto Netflix, the Finnish crime series Harjunpää is based on the novels by Matti Yrjänä Joensuu, retitled Helsinki Crimes for the international market, on the grounds that there is no point in having a hero whose name nobody can pronounce in the Home Counties. The character has appeared before in multiple adaptations, including a Swedish-language TV series in the 1980s and a Finnish series in the 1990s. Here, he is dusted off once more for the Scandi Noir generation, with adaptations of four of the Harjunpää novels, carefully dragged into the 21st century. Harjunpää and the Policeman’s Son, for example, was originally published in 1983, but here gains a subplot about online identity theft that would never have even occurred to the original author. Harjunpää and the Bullies, originally published in 1986, is here entirely transformed into a story of net stalking and catfishing.

The original novels were written between 1976 and 2010 by a serving police officer with a deep interest not only in the police procedural, but in the psychological grind of police work. Harjunpää himself was named in honour of a fellow cop, killed in the line of duty in 1968. Joensuu’s original novels focused on the damage done to Harjunpää by his encounters with crime and criminals. As noted in Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley, police officers tend to encounter people on “the worst days of their lives”, and the series zeroes in on Harjunpää’s troubles reconciling his day-job horrors with his distant family life.

Much of the appeal to Finnish viewers surely stems from the way that forty-year-old thrillers are updated for a new generation, but none of that will be visible to audiences overseas. Instead, they are liable to see an oddly well-off, reticent detective, blundering through a series of crime scenes, with a will-this-do? theme tune and a touchy-feely boss.

The subtitling team push their translation to the redline of acceptability, throwing in a bunch of policier slang (all “vics” and “K-9 units” and “broads” and even saying “911” when the emergency number in Finland is actually 112), which makes the script sound a lot cooler than it really is. The best scene in episode one, however, is completely wordless, as a father identifies his daughter’s body at the morgue, and the entire thing is played in Finnish silence.

Some truly interesting local nuances may slip past the casual foreign viewer, such as the calm and conciliatory behaviour of the police, who often seem to treat the criminals as if the crime they have just committed is something that has happened to them. Harjunpää has none of the “YOU’RE A LOOSE CANNON!” spats we might expect with his captain, who is, instead, a kind-hearted matron who asks him if he is fulfilled at the workplace. His conflict with his partner Onerva is not about the usual buddy-cop tensions, but about her unreconstructed opinion that criminals cannot possibly be reformed, and are only learning enough psychobabble to gain parole.

The filming schedule appears to have made the most of the short Finnish summer, although one sequence may play differently with foreign viewers. It looks at first as if someone is doing a terrible job of shooting day-for-night, but is in fact naturalistically filmed at midnight in July, which truly has an eerie teal pallor, like some otherworldly twilight.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Short History of Finland.

Ryuichi Sakamoto (1952-2023)

“I would really like to work with people who understand music,” he once said. “Film directors can just cut out a couple of frames to make things fit, but I have to rearrange an entire song if they do that. One director could cut out an entire scene, just after I’d finished writing the music for it.”

Over at All the Anime, my obituary for the composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.