Calamari Union (1985) - Aki Kaurismäki

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Country: Finland
Language: English, Finnish

In which a loose 'gang' comprising 18 (or so) men, all (bar one) named Frank, all (bar one or two) permanently wearing sunglasses (day and night, indoor/outdoor), attempt to leave behind their unsatisfactory environment ("crowded homes, ignorance and hunger, not to mention stuffy buses with irregular timetables"), and, motivated by the hope that the grass is greener elsewhere ("The branch of a rotten tree must seek a healthier trunk,") make their way across a large city (Helsinki?) towards the maybe-mythical zone known as Eira, where "the streets are wide and the air is smooth and fresh."

Arriving in the "extreme centre of the city," the permanently chain-smoking eighteen quickly splits up into smaller groupings of ones, twos and three - and then their adventures begin, most of them ending in death. But in the mildly stylised, monochrome world of Calamari Union (a title which, predictably in such a too-cool-for-school venture, is never explained or even once mentioned), death need not necessarily be the end...

This is very early Kaurismaki: only his second solo-directed feature (after 1983's Dostoyevsky adaptation Crime and Punishment), and his first based on his own original story. As indicated by the name of Kaurismaki's production company (Villealfa), the chief influence would appear to be Godard's Alphaville: nothing remotely resembling special effects are deployed, and only actual downtown environments are used; Kaurismaki treats Helsinki more as a geographical idea than as an actual quotidian city, a starting-point for a quasi-imaginary journey into a shadowy limbo formed and informed by B-movies and rock music.

Plot is incidental; attitude is all: deadpan, detached, world-weary, unsmiling, 'beat.' Kaurismaki's script is a collection of nifty episodes operating on their own internal, solipsistic logic, full of repeated images, lines and tropes. It's more impressive than involving, easier to admire than to enjoy (though at times the picture is laugh-out-loud funny), an archly jokey concept stretched out to something approaching feature length. By no means essential Kaurismaki, then, but an intrigue glimpse of a distinctive talent in precocious, quirky embryo.

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