Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
Director: Jalmari Helander
review by Jonathan McCalmont
One interesting way of distinguishing between fantasy and horror is that, while fantasy considers the past to be a mysterious and magical place whose
departure from the world is a thing to be regretted, horror realises that for all the magic and wonder that the past possessed, we really are better
off in a world of breakfast cereals, social media and organic free-range kale. Like Dick Maas' thoroughly wonderful
Saint (2010), Jalmari Helander's Rare Exports casts an eye over the
story of Father Christmas and wonders why we react to this story with anything other than abject horror.
Set in Finland, Rare Exports takes place in the shadow of a great mountain. For hundreds of years, the Sami people have lived off of the herds
of reindeer that roam around the mountain. One year, when a multinational corporation begins mining the top of the mountain, the reindeer migrations
are affected and the Sami people find themselves facing imminent bankruptcy. In and of itself, this tale of confrontation between the environmentally
sensitive local population and the inscrutable desires of foreign capitalists is surprisingly engaging, as Helander depicts the reindeer herders as
a form of arctic biker gang complete with beards, sunglasses and shotguns.
Apparently there are no female reindeer herders but the masculine eccentricity of the reindeer herders simply makes them seem more sympathetic. These
are men who desperately miss having women in their lives and this sense of loss has resulted in them going a little bit peculiar. The wonderful
characterisation of the reindeer herders combines with Mika Orasmaa's gorgeous cinematography to produce a film that is absolutely rooted in the
singular beauty of Finland. Seriously, if this film did not receive funding from the Finnish government then someone missed a trick. Rare Exports
makes Finland seem like an absolutely awesome place. However, move beyond these broad narrative strokes and you find a film that is all about the past
erupting into the present.
Pietari (Onni Tomilla) is a boy standing on the cusp of manhood. On one level, he is a boy and, as a boy, he is protected from the harshness of the
reindeer-herding existence by an overprotective father who spins fibs about wolves in order to keep his son from harm. On another level, Pietari is
a man who has been given his first shotgun and allowed enough autonomy to roam about the mountainside with his equally cuspy friends. Trapped between
the life of a man and the life of a child, Pietari has learned to see the truth amidst the lies told to him by his father. This capacity to sift truth
from fable means that Pieatri is in a unique position to investigate when the local reindeer herd is mysteriously slaughtered and both things and
children begin disappearing from people's homes.
Pietari rapidly works out that all of these strange events took place after the multinational began drilling into their local mountain. In a magnificent
research-montage made up of hilarious pictures from ancient tomes of Sami lore, Pietari works out not only that the miners are unearthing Santa Claus
but also that Santa Claus is a demonic figure trapped in the mountain by his Sami ancestors. As with many fantastical films with a child as its primary
protagonist, much of Rare Exports' drama comes from Pietari's attempts to convince the reindeer herders to take him seriously and treat him
like a man.
On a purely technical level, Rare Exports is an absolute joy to behold. Right from the start, Helander teases us with tales of the horrifically
evil Santa and how he would boil children alive in order to eat them. With absolute control over tension levels, Helander has our pulses racing with
all kinds of strange goings on that are elegantly rooted in this front-loaded idea of an ancient and evil Santa. Having whetted our appetites with
all kinds of winks and nods, Helander ushers in a second act in which the reindeer herders find themselves face-to-face with an elderly bearded man
whose eyes are not quite right.
Again, Helander plays this sequence absolutely masterfully as the grimy old man not only gives off a skin-crawling tinge of the uncanny, he also taps
into our cultural fear of paedophilia in that he is literally a dirty old man who keeps staring at a little boy. This whiff of sexual deviancy pays
off beautifully in a later scene where Pietari find himself cornered as dozens of naked old men run eagerly towards him.
Aside from the eeriness of the old man and Pietari's position on the cusp of adulthood, Rare Exports also toys with the idea of arrested
development. Indeed, the head of the multinational corporation that are trying to unearth Santa is a man who dresses and acts in a manner that suggests
that adulthood does not necessarily become him. Aside from spending an absolute fortune trying to meet the real Santa, the man also hands out a set
of safety precautions in order to prevent his men from being seen as 'bad boys'. These precautions include statements such as 'no swearing' and 'no
drinking', precisely the kinds of rules that adults apply to their children. By attempting to ensure that his workmen are seen as 'good boys', the
foreign businessman is effectively trying to envelop them in the same state of arrested development as him.
Regrettably underused, this character is fiercely reminiscent of both the collector character from Toy Story 2 (1999), and Michael Jackson,
in that all three give off an image of adulthood that is just far-enough out of alignment to set people's teeth on edge. Although Rare Exports
never delves into the capitalist's motivations, it is clear that there is something very wrong with a man who would destroy a mountain, risk dozens
and lives and spend a fortune in order to meet Santa. The childlike glee displayed by the capitalist when he first encounters the reindeer herders'
old man is beautifully unclean; the way he strokes the old man's filthy and matter beard speaks of a profoundly broken form of humanity.
Predictable enough, the film ends with Santa dead and the reindeer-herders safe but, even after the brilliantly-shot and wonderfully exciting climax
in which Pietari earns his stripes as a man, Rare Exports continues to deliver the goods in a hilarious epilogue in which the herders train
the mysterious old men to be Santas. Having bathed and re-educated them, the herders export their magical slaves to any country willing to pay for
the privilege of having a 'real life' Father Christmas.
Aside from being very funny and very wrong, this sequence speaks to the challenge of global capital to the lives and cultures of aboriginal peoples.
The reindeer herders end the film in triumph precisely because they possess the wit to make money out of their 'rare exports' and the desire to use
that money to protect their traditional way of life. This ending shows a film in witty dialogue with both the rules of traditional fantasy and those
of the horror genre as the reindeer herders win because they take the horrors of their cultural past and sell it off to the highest bidder. Thus,
the Sami people are freed from the need to either yearn for or fear the past. They won because they confronted their past and found a way to own it.
Wonderfully made and amusingly written, Rare Exports is everything that a Christmas horror movie should be. Proper horror nerds may grump about
the lack of gore and the low number of scares but more universalist viewers will find in this Finnish production a tense and thought-provoking stab
at the perennial weirdness of celebrating the existence of a magical critter who sneaks into people's houses in order to ply their children with gifts.