! = recommended
* = all-ages
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Rare Exports - A Christmas Tale is a brilliant tell-all film about the true origins of Father Christmas that the Coca-Cola company never wanted you to see...or a fascinating exploration of what the outcome would have been if darkly quirky Finnish movie types had remade a film originally starring Bruce Willis.
Purporting to tell the "true" story of Santa Claus, it's an unusual and entertaining experience. Likely destined to become a Christmas classic for those who view Bad Santa as just a smidge too sweet for their tastes. I went in with high expectations that were almost satisfied by this offbeat holiday film.
Near the border with Russia, a secretive project is going on. Billed to outsiders as "seismological research", the Sub-Zero corporation is in the process of trying to unearth the original Santa. Buried long ago in ice with a mountain built on top, one might wonder why the people of Finland had such an opposition to receiving free toys at only the cost of some cookies and milk (and cleaning up the odd reindeer droppings on the roof). Turns out that this Santa is more of the "thrash bad children to the point of incapacitation with the occasional boiling them alive to keep things interesting" sort of creature. So of course when he's pulled out of the ground some bad things are going to happen - at the very least he's clearly going to be hungry. And you won't like Santa when he's hungry.
Thrust into this story is a young boy, who through eavesdropping and old-fashioned book research is the only one in town who (mostly) knows what the score is. Together with his taciturn father and friends, they do their best to make economic lemonade out of the situational lemons they're faced with.
There are scares, beautiful photography, father/son moments and gingerbread. Not to mention some serious blowing of shit up. Basically something for everyone. And how can you at least not derive some pleasure from a film where a character gets to utter in a completely deadpan manner the pre-ransom demand "We have Santa Clause" ?
It's not a long film, and one could argue that a little more length would have allowed for additional character development or complexity of plot. But in reality that sort of extra time seems more likely to be spent on more evil elves or some such thing. In my view, the ratio of family relationship to evil workshop helpers was fairly well calibrated. Son finds out Santa's not real, then he finds out there's another version of Santa in the Finnish history books conveniently left about the house. Soon after hunter/butcher father and friends catch more than they bargained in a trap laid for wolves. When they try to sell their find back to the sketchy Sub Zero corporation, things really hit the fan. In between, there's a few quiet but very amusing snarks mixed in about their Russian neighbors.
I definitely found the film enjoyable, and I liked the visual style and under spoken roles of the adults. The young lead character Pietari (Onni Tommila) holds everything together in the most verbal performance of the picture. In the end the concept and visual execution probably was a little stronger than the plot, but for a bit of anti-holiday cheer in a genre wrapper, it's almost as much fun as it sounds.
One note that probably should be somewhat obvious but worth mentioning: this isn't a Santa movie for kids - at least not young kids. While it's not an especially bloody film by modern standards, there definitely is some gore...not to mention full frontal older elf nudity in a communal shower (which may be one of the most haunting images I'll see on screen this year). It can make you flash back to time spent in a YMHA locker room you've been trying to forget for 25 years. Or so I'd imagine...