The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä Mies)

Unsurprisingly, sports films – and boxing movies in particular – are filled with characters who have an incredibly strong will to win. Think of the pummellings the modern-day gladiators dish out and endure in the likes of The Fighter, Raging Bull and Southpaw, for example, before those very same boxers get back in the ring for another match. Narratives usually lead to some watershed moment in the ring, with slow motion blow-by-blow delivery of the action, sweat flying and bones crunching. Or think of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky as he sweats through yet another exhausting training montage, desperate to recapture former glories, particularly as he moves into his 50s and his waist expands. Y’know, Rocky, you really don’t have to put yourself through this any more…

The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is very much an anti-boxing movie (though it’s not, for clarity’s sake, anti-boxing per se). In real life Mäki was a very successful amateur Finnish boxer, competing in the Olympics before later turning professional. He fought Davey Moore in Finland for the World Featherweight Title in 1962, only to lose in two rounds, and this beautiful black and white film by Juho Kuosmanen is set during the run-up to that bout, as well as its immediate aftermath. Really, though, the film is about the relationship between Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija Jänkä (played with a huge dose of warm-hearted charm by Finnish singer-turned-actor Oona Airola). This is in a developmental stage when Mäki is handed a shot at the world title, and it’s clear where his priorities lie; the fight receives lots of attention in Helsinki and beyond, meaning Mäki must spend less time with the love of his life and more time half-heartedly negotiating press conferences, pre-event balls and other related gatherings. Olli’s temporary trainer Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff), a former fighter who tasted glory himself, cannot understand why his charge is so ambivalent towards the upcoming match. For the audience it’s obvious: what we have here is a man who is good at what he does but he does not have the drive to get to the very top, and doesn’t like to be in the limelight; though due to cinematic conventions regarding success, we question why – is there something fundamentally wrong with this character? (Oddly enough, with that in mind, a character who I think closely resembles Mäki is Adam Driver’s poet Paterson in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.)

It’s a light, unassuming but thoroughly entertaining film, the hand-held camerawork and the boxing gym locations bringing to mind Shane Meadows’ low-key debut TwentyFourSeven, though the images here are crisper and several scenes involving large numbers of people have been blocked beforehand, which adds to the more professional-looking edge. The main performances are excellent, and there’s an uplifting, unassuming feel to this underdog story that I liked very much. I thought I was done with boxing movies, which often seem to have turned into parodies of themselves of late, but this is a gem that quickly disarms anyone who mistakenly approaches it with weary cynicism. (****)