Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, 80 mins, rated TBC, opens in cinemas 2 December 2010.


(This is a slightly longer version of my review of the same film published in The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is a most unusual film. It’s from a genre that has very few members: the Christmas horror story. I can think of only a handful of other entries in that genre: Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and possibly, if you remember some of its grim subject matter, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). There are several I haven’t seen: You Better Watch Out from 1980, which has “a psycho in a Santa suit”, Black Christmas, from 1974, which has a stranger terrorising students during Christmas holidays, and Silent Night, Deadly Night, which has an axe murderer on the rampage, dressed as Santa. Then there’s the classic short film Suburban Zombie Christmas (Melski, 2008), which seems self-explanatory. And we’ve had Billy Bob Thornton as Bad Santa (Zwigoff, 2003), but that’s not a horror film, just a twisted view of Christmas with heart-warming elements.

What’s important to know about Rare Exports, and what makes it unique, is that it is Finnish. Finland has quite a vibrant film industry, led by brothers Aki and Mika Kaurismäki since the early 1980s. If you’ve seen Aki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), Drifting Clouds (1996), or The Man Without a Past (2002) you might appreciate the rather quirky black humour that features in Rare Exports.

The filmmakers call it a “Christmas fantasy thriller”. They say it’s not a horror film, but warn, “it’s not for little children either”. That’s for sure: at times it had me watching through squinty eyes, and gasping out loud. It is scary, but also fascinating, original, and very well realised.

This is a Christmas story from the real home of Santa Claus. It’s based on the legend of the original Finnish Santa: a horned monster who spied on children to see if they were being “naughty or nice”, and took the naughty ones away from their parents. This Santa is a nightmare!  But then again, many of the Grimm fairytales were nightmarish, too.

Speaking of the brothers Grimm: the film begins with a stylish, but sometimes grisly, montage of pictures from an old storybook about the Finnish Santa Claus. They have captions such as: “Who’s been Naughty?” and “Santa by his Cauldron”. The live-action scenes that follow are extremely atmospheric – as if a children’s book had come to life. There’s stunningly stark mountain scenery, and action on an epic scale. The film is set in arctic Finland, but it was actually shot in Norway, and it has pretty good special effects, given the film’s shoestring budget.

Rare Exports began as a short film that the director, Jalmari Helander and his brother Juusi made for a company that produced commercials: it was a Christmas present for their clients. It was so popular that they released two short Rare Exports films on the web. They “went viral” (you can see them on YouTube), and so Jalmari Helander was able to develop them into this feature film – which serves as a “prequel” to the short films.

The film stars two cute kids: Ilmari Järvenpää as Juuso, and Onni Tommila as our hero, Pietari, in the classic horror/ sci-fi role of the only kid in town who knows what’s really going on. There’s also a group of rugged and capable Finnish hunters who are as used to dealing with wolves, as they are with foreign mining interests. At Christmas-time they hunt and shoot the migrating reindeer, and they do their own butchery. They’re used to guns and blood, but now they have to confront an unknown quantity. Who will prevail?

I saw this film knowing nothing about the plot, and I think that’s the best way to see it. You already know that it is scary. It’s also a fairytale, so it’s best not to look too closely into its logic. The ending, though decidedly upbeat and – yes – heart-warming, poses a few legal problems that lawyers will probably notice: there’s a serious deficiency of passports, identity papers, and export and employment permits with these Rare Exports. It’s also worth noting that, perhaps as a nod to those horror films in which women play only a token role, Helander has managed to eliminate women altogether! But it’s coming up to Christmas, so let’s overlook those legal and gender issues, and just enjoy the thrills and chills of the “true” legend of Santa Claus.