3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Kaurismäki's hilariously absurd, surrealist romp,
This review is from: Calamari Union [DVD] (DVD)
Calamari Union (1985) was the second feature-length film from Finish auteur Aki Kaurismäki following on from his somewhat dour, contemporary-set adaptation of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (1983). Right away, Kaurismäki is showing his extraordinary range as a filmmaker; moving away from the low key, minimalist realism of Crime and Punishment to the surreal, improvisational, black and white playfulness of the film in question. This sense of imagination and ability to move from one stylistic reference point to the next - all the while retaining his deadpan style and coolly ironic use of character and dialog - would be further reinforced over subsequent films, such as Shadows in Paradise (1986), Hamlet Goes Business (1987) and Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989). Though Calamari Union lacks the more refined and iconic Kaurismäki style of those particular films, it does show his early interest in surrealism, broad, absurdist humour, and an ensemble setting.
Like many of his films, such as the aforementioned Leningrad Cowboys and his underrated masterpiece Ariel (1988), the plot of Calamari Union is episodic and picaresque; following the misadventures of fifteen men, fourteen of them named Frank Merciless, and an idiot man-child named Pekka, who one day decide to leave behind the hopeless working class world of Eira and quest to the near-mythical borough of Kallio. As you can possibly deduce from the description, Calamari Union is not necessarily a film to be taken entirely seriously, with Kaurismäki taking the silliest plot and the most bizarre of caricatures and creating this wandering tale filled with strange scenes, disconnected vignettes, slapstick humour and even, a rock n' roll performance piece! In the past, Kaurismäki has claimed that this is the only film he's ever directed whilst being either drunk or hung-over, which does makes sense. Then again, knowing Kaurismäki's fondness for exaggeration and self-deprecation, it would be best not to read too much into this. Although the film is obviously not intended to be taken on a completely serious level, that's not to say that it isn't open to deeper, more analytical interpretations.
For me, there's a definite air of Luis Buñuel here - both in terms of the plot and, I suppose, some of the more sub-textual ideologies - not to mention the clear influence of Bertrand Blier's fantastic film Buffet froid (1979), which follows a similarly episodic tale of strange men having strange adventures. Calamari Union perhaps isn't as great as that particular film, though it does show Kaurismäki and his crew to be on top creative form; filming in luminous black and white as a nod to the French New Wave and creating a great atmosphere on an obviously limited budget. In fact, it feels more like a first film than Crime and Punishment, with the highly original, idiosyncratic story, small cast of central characters, inventive use of sound, location and cinematography and low budget production all adding to the rough and unpolished charm. It's still unknown what Kaurismäki's actual intentions were with this film, whether he simply wanted to produce something quite silly and outlandish as a bit of fun with his friends, or whether there is some hidden depth to the film just waiting to be discovered and re-interpreted.
Obviously, I have my own ideas. To me, the film can be seen as a representation of the cycle of life; with the characters emerging from the womb-like warmth of their local pub and beginning their bizarre journey into life, before breaking away, meeting new people, forming relationships, making decisions and finally dropping dead. You could also see the film as a treatise on the notion of individuality; with the earlier scenes showing the group to be very much of a singular "union" - both anonymous to themselves and to the audience - and all with the same goals and desires. Eventually, as they continue their journey they discover individual interests and passageways through life until they finally come to form their own unique personality. Failing that, it really could be just a simple work of surrealist fun, with no greater meaning or interpretation hidden beneath the madness and often hilarious scenes of ridiculous frivolity.
Regardless of this, Calamari Union is still something of a great film; perhaps not as good as later films by Kaurismäki, such as Hamlet Goes Business, Ariel, I Hired a Contract Killer (1990) and The Man without a Past (2002), but nonetheless, a good place to start for those new to his particular blend of bold, unique and always eccentric world cinema.