Lights in the Dusk; 12:08 East of Bucharest

lights-dusk.jpgAki Kaurismäki is one of Finland’s most highly regarded filmmakers. In 1989 Kaurismäki’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America helped solidify his place in the international film scene, and ever since then the prolific filmmaker’s work has played at festivals and arthouses throughout the United States. The 1996 film Drifting Clouds was the first installment in what was first known as the “loser series.” Drifting Clouds was followed by 2002’s The Man Without a Past, one of Kaurismäki’s finest achievements as a filmmaker. Both films, though unrelated by story or character, are set in Helsinki, and revolve around a sad-sack cast of characters who have been dealt losing hands by life. With his most recent film, Lights in the Dusk, Kaurismäki’s “loser series” has become the “loser trilogy” as the director once again explores the bone-dry comedic landscape of Helsinki.

Kaurismäki’s latest loser is Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a security guard who lives a sad and lonely existence. After three years on the job, his co-workers still don’t know his name, and pay him no regard whatsoever. When he tries to make conversation, he is rebuffed by everyone. But when he meets Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), Koistinen thinks he has finally found someone to love who will love him back. What he doesn’t know is that Mirja works for a criminal, who is using her to get access to Koistinen’s keys and alarm codes so he can rob a jewelry store in the mall that he patrols at night. When he refuses to tell the police what he knows, Koistinen goes to prison for a crime he did not commit. Meanwhile, lunchwagon operator Aila (Maria Heiskane) carries a torch for Koistinen, but he is too blind to see it, making him as dismissive of her as the rest of the world is of him. When he is finally released from prison, our hero tries to rebuild his pathetic life, but the past soon comes back to haunt him.

Lights in the Dusk is essentially a noir film, told with the same unique comedic style that defines the work of Kaurismäki. And indeed, Kaurismäki’s style of comedy is unique—as is his filmmaking in general. Known for the cold way he strips emotion from his stories, the characters in Kaurismäki’s loser films can seem like sleepwalking automatons. This is by design, but it can be off-putting and unsettling, and if you’re not paying attention, you may not even notice the films are comedies, as the director never telegraphs the humor. In fact, the first time I saw The Man Without a Past, I didn’t even realize it was a comedy until about twenty-minutes in.

The Man Without a Past is the strongest of the films in the loser series, and while Lights in the Dusk is a good film, it is not as strong or compelling. The film’s key problem lies with its loser-hero, Koistinen, who never becomes someone the audience can care about. Maybe Kaurismäki doesn’t want audiences to feel anything for his protagonist, which would explain why he goes so far out of his way to downplay the emotional depth of his characters. But if that is the case, then he failed in The Man Without a Past, because we do care what happens to the amnesiac M (Markku Peltola), and he also failed in Lights in the Dusk because we ultimately don’t care what happens to Koistinen. The revelation of M’s true nature as a loser does not come until much later in The Man Without a Past, and by that point we have come to know him as someone else, and see the possibility of redemption. By contrast, Koistinen is a loser from the outset, and he only becomes worse; first, as he allows himself to take the fall for Mirja, and then again when he fails to see the compassion and caring Aila has to offer. Koistinen is very much a traditional noir protagonist, but by using a palate of muted tones to render the emotional content of his film, Kaurismäki paints the character in such a way that he never becomes all that likeable.

Despite my problems with the character development in Lights in the Dusk, I still appreciate the film. Kaurismäki, who is a cinematic soul brother of Jim Jarmusch, remains an interesting and unique visual storyteller. But be warned, his films are not for everyone—they move incredibly slow and methodically, have long bouts of silence, and the emotional detachment really rubs some people the wrong way. Still, Lights in the Dusk has some wonderful moments, and for those willing to try something a bit offbeat cinematically, it is worth watching.

bucharest.jpg The influence of Kaurismäki’s films, as well as the influence of Jarmusch, can be seen in 12:08 East of Bucharest, the debut feature of Romanian filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu. An often-times quiet, always casually paced examination of life in a small town just east of Bucharest, Pirumboiu’s film has a sense of humor that is as dry as it is sharp.

Set in contemporary Romania just before the of Christmas 2005, the film takes place on December 22, a date that marks the anniversary of the fall of communism. Sixteen years earlier, at 12:08 in the afternoon, with much of Romania watching on television, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled for his life in a helicopter after rioting broke out throughout the country. Now, all these years later, small town television anchorman Virgil Jderescu (Teodor Corban) wants to examine if the revolution that led to the fall of communism ever actually came to town. Virjil decides to host a special program devoted specifically to the revolution, by interviewing two men who were part of the action. Tiberiu Manescu (Ion Sapdaru) is a teacher with a serious drinking problem, a nagging wife, and more debt that he can handle. Manescu claims that he and three of his friends led their own riot, storming the local city hall when everyone else was too scared to take to the streets. The problem is that no one recalls seeing Manescu and his friends before 12:08, which means they would not technically be part of the revolution. Virjil’s other guest is Emanoil Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), a surly-yet-sweet old man known by everyone in town for his annual dressing up as Santa Claus. As the three discuss the events of December 22, 1989, various people call in to the show to offer their insight as to what happened that fateful day, revealing that no one actually remembers the same thing.

Structured as two films in one, the first part of 12:08 East of Bucharest serves as an introduction to the three main characters. Observational and subtle in its wit, the first portion is a series of well-crafted portraits of the three leads. Porumboiu takes great care in showing exactly who these men are, sixteen years after life in their country was altered greatly. This is merely the set-up for the film’s second half, the actual television show, which is presented almost as if it were a play. The comedy is more obvious during the second sequence, but the film is also more engaging, in no small part because now there is the feeling that we actually know these people. We know that Manescu has a drinking problem that affects his memory, but that doesn’t stop us from wanting to believe he actually was part of the revolution, or feeling his discomfort as everyone questions his honesty.

12:08 East of Bucharest is a great film, with a witty script that is both culturally specific and universally human at the same time. This is the sort of film that clearly speaks to Romanians on a personal level. But that level is balanced out with a humanity that crosses cultures and borders. You don’t even need to be familiar with Romanian history, as long as you understand people.

Porumboiu’s script provides his cast with an opportunity to turn in wonderful performances. The chemistry between the three lead actors carry the film during the second part, and keeps it grounded in humanity when it could just as easily have devolved into a broad farce. The film’s only real problem is that it will certainly move too slow for some people. This is not a film for those with short attention spans, who love to see quick cuts and fast-paced movies. But if you are a fan of filmmakers like Jarmusch and Kaurismäki, you are certain to enjoy 12:08 East of Bucharest.

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