The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Juho Kuosmanen, 2016)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki.

In the summer of 1962, small town Finnish baker Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) has a shot at the world featherweight boxing title held by dominating American champion Davey Moore. Olli is thrust from his countryside home into a fraught training camp with the pressures of national stardom and a draining publicity circuit, but he has bigger problem – he has just fallen in love with a sweet country girl (Oona Airola) and can think about little else. Based on a true story, Juho Kuosmanen’s exquisitely lyrical, verité-styled inversion of the sports biography won the Un Certain Regard Prize, charming Cannes audiences with its gentle humor and bittersweet romance.

Disc Features:

  • High-definition digital master, supervised by cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interview with director Juho Kuosmanen, production designer Kari Kankaanpää cinematographer Passi
  • New interviews with actors Jarkko Lahti, Oona Airola, and Eero Milonoff
  • Roadmarkers (2007), Citizens (2008), and The Painting Sellers (2010), three award-winning short films by Kuosmanen
  • Trailer
  • New English subtitle translation
  • PLUS: A new essay by critic Manohla Dargis

With its wonderful black-and-white cinematography and its title-fight context, it’s easy to draw comparisons between Juho Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies, 2016) and Martin Scorsese’s classic, Raging Bull (1980). Like most sports biographies, both films attend to the pressures experienced by athletes in competition and out. Happiest Day focuses on real-life Finnish boxer Olli Mäki and his 1962 opportunity to challenge for the World Featherweight Championship on home soil. Mäki, nicknamed “The Baker of Kokkola” because he was a baker in his remote hometown, is a talented fighter and modest individual unaccustomed to the pressures of his training camp. He struggles to cut down from his usual lightweight class and he’s obviously uncomfortable with the press conferences, media sessions, dinners, advertising photo shoots, and documentary filming that make up the fight’s media circus. His manager Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) and his various supporters have aims at fame and fortune on the back of the fight, but Olli is distracted by the increasing awareness that he has fallen in love with a local girl named Raija Jänkä (Oola Airola). Heartsick and lovelorn, Mäki less resembles Jake LaMotta’s “Raging Bull” and more reflects Munro Leaf’s Ferdinand the Bull, a talented physical specimen more attuned to bucolic sentiment.

Despite dramatizing a fifty-five year-old event, Happiest Day manages to reflect it own making. Kuosmanen had previously found great success with his short films, culminating with The Painting Sellers (2010) which won the Cannes Cinéfondation prize. The award included the promise that his first feature would have its international premiere as an official selection at the Cannes Film Festival. The honour gradually became a source of anxiety for Kuosmanen but the idea of making Happiest Day – the story of a boxer early in his career who lost a world championship fight in humiliating fashion and still referred to it as best day of his life – became a solace to the filmmaker. Kuosmanen underscores his creative crisis by reflexively having Mäki uncomfortably perform for a documentary celebrating him and the match. It is a reminder that, for both boxer and director alike, the brighter the spotlight, the more you sweat under it.

The title fight itself is scarcely represented in Happiest Day, a decision by Kuosmanen “to concentrate on the things that are hidden” and “not hold it above as something symbolic or greater than the other scenes.” Ryan Coogler’s Creed (2015) offered something of a relief to Kuosmanen, who watched scores of boxing movies to the point that he considered changing his subject matter. The director observed that “when you know that Rocky 7 is being made at the same time, you can be sure that they are going to focus on the fight scenes, so you’re free to focus on the eye contact and the kite flying scenes.” Kuosmanen and his cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi (who reviewed no boxing movies) watched many verité films of the ’60s to find their visual reference point. They tested various recording materials before settling on Kodak Tri-X, a black and white reversal popular in the 1960s for news footage. Unused for feature filmmaking, the production ended up requiring all the stock available in Europe and the United States, then needed Kodak to produce more. The effect is a film that is texturally of its supposed time, described by Kuosmanen as “a contemporary film that feels like an old film” and one that “wouldn’t need to underline the period with close-ups of characteristic objects, cars or hairdos on the set.” By relieving production designer Kari Kankaanpää of the need to demonstrate the film’s period setting, Happiest Day allows the mise-en-scène to serve its characters and their conflicts rather than merely situate them.

Kuosmanen has cited the influence of Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing and her remark that “Boxing is a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.” For the director, the ethos of sport is increasingly holding sway in our daily lives and its definitions of “success” and its constant tallying are negative influences. “Competition is essential in sports,” Kuosmanen observes. “I love it, but when it becomes the everyday, it’s destroying the beauty of life.” The typical sports film requires the protagonist to shed the distractions of interpersonal drama (read: family, romance, etc.) to focus on their once-in-a-lifetime contest that ultimately validates them in the eyes of those distractions/people who then appreciate their sacrifices through their achievement or their admirable defeat. Happiest Day inverts this formula by having Olli recognize that the truly valuable event is his discovery of true love and that the fight, a single match for which he is obviously outclassed (hype notwithstanding), is the true distraction that he must carefully shepherd his way through in order to find Raija still waiting for him. There is tension in his lackluster efforts – the risk of not making weight, the ire of Elis (“You know it’s a shitty time to fall in love. Pull yourself together.”), the disappointment of teammates, sponsors, and an entire nation – but the greater risk is that Olli will fold personally under the pressure of external expectation and the kind, gentle man who appreciates losing to a worthy opponent, who avoids killing a housefly, with whom Raija fell in love with, might get lost. As Kuosmanen describes, “in the end, we are not following how Olli is going to change, but instead hoping that he will remain as he is.” Knowing that the actual Olli and Raija provide a cameo late in the film, an elderly couple walking arm-in-arm along a riverbank, Happiest Day provides a silent affirmation of its priorities, contrasting Mäki’s in-ring loss and lifetime of happiness thereafter with the fate of his celebrated opponent Davey Moore who died suddenly the next year from injuries sustained in a fight, his death memorialized in Bob Dylan’s “Who Killed Davey Moore?”

Happiest Day proceeds in an episodic fashion and it is in this presentation that the spirit of boxing is most greatly felt. There is a spontaneous, free-wheeling quality to Passi’s camerawork that evokes the circling, stick-and-moving dynamism of the fighter. (Kuosmanen and Passi specifically avoided choreographing training sessions and camera movement to allow for a more natural feel to the sparring sessions.) And one can almost hear the ring of a bell announcing the end of a round and/or the start of another in the abrupt cuts that transition between the film’s scenes. Jarkko Lahti, a childhood friend of Kuosmanen who grew up on the same street, inhabits his role convincingly, having started boxing as soon as the director began considering the project and even having a pair of amateur fights. Singer and actress Oona Airola makes her film début in a carefully constructed but effortlessly appearing performance, while veteran actor Eero Milonoff ably plays his high-strung manager with self-interested intensity. Both sprightly and melancholy, mundane in content and vibrant in construction, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is a fresh take on the sports film deserving of a wacky “C.”

Fans of Criterion titles like Ermanno Olmi‘s underrated Il posto (1961) and I fidanzati (1962) will no doubt appreciate Kuosmanen’s Un Certain Regard winner, as will those Aki Kaurismäki devotees looking to further explore Finnish cinema. Happiest Day could also join the ranks of Criterion’s titles tangentially related to boxing – City Lights (Charles Chaplin, 1931) and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (Alexander Hall, 1941). With his talented pencilwork and his avowed admiration for the Collection, MMC! proudly suggests Matt Burkel as potential cover artist for a Criterion edition of Happiest Day. His Raging Bull piece is wonderful and obviously declares his capability to do justice to both Jarkoo Lahti’s physicality and Jani-Petteri Passi’s rich black-and-white images.

Credits: Most valuable to this proposal was the press kit to The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki. Manohla Dargis was chosen to provide an essay as a past friend of the Collection and given her very complimentary review of the film for The New York Times. This post was also owes debts to reviews by David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter, Guy Lodge for Variety, Sarah Ward for Screen Daily, Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian, Kenneth Turan for The Los Angeles Times, A.A. Dowd for The AV Club, John Bleasdale for CineVue, Elias Savada for Film International, Carson Lund for Slant, and Jason Anderson for Cinema Scope.

3 thoughts on “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki (Juho Kuosmanen, 2016)

  1. Erin September 7, 2017 / 9:10 pm

    I watched this a couple of months ago when it was on MUBI and really enjoyed it. It’s one of those films that’s stuck with me, even though I’ve only seen it once so far, and I look forward to seeing it again at some point. Thanks for all of the background information and your insights!

  2. jnvahtola September 14, 2017 / 3:35 pm

    An excellent choice! This film has been popular in Finland, too. A literal translation for the title “Hymyilevä mies” is ‘The Smiling Man’, but most translated titles (including the Finland’s Swedish one) seem to be based upon “The Happiest Day…”

    According to DVDCompare, the Finnish Blu-ray is region-free and there is a 53-minute documentary, and English subtitles at least for the main feature.

    • spinenumbered September 14, 2017 / 5:33 pm

      Thanks for this info! It seems like quite a few of these Scandinavian titles are finding region-free editions with subs!

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