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    The Man Without a Past

    Blanks for the memories

    "The Man Without a Past," the second in Aki KaurismŠki's "Finn" trilogy, is a skillful and consistently charming comedy about a man who suffers amnesia and has to build a new life from nothing.

    By TOM X. CHAO

    (Originally reviewed at the New York Film Festival in September 2002.)

    "The Man Without A Past" tells the tale of a man who loses his memory as the result of a brutal robbery and beating and has to proceed without his memories. Yet in a variation of this familiar theme, the nameless protagonist spends his time not searching for his lost identity, but reinventing himself from scratch. In doing so, we meet a number of other eccentrics who also seem to lack pasts, but veteran Finnish director Aki KaurismŠki deftly sketches them with quotable dialogue, small gestures, even a held expression on a stolid face.

    Original title: Mies vailla menneisyyttŠ.
    Written and directed by: Aki KaurismŠki.
    Cast: Markku Peltola, Kati Outinen, Annikki TŠhti, Juhani NiemelŠ, Kaija Pakarinen, Sakari Kuosmanen, Esko Nikkari, Outi MŠenpŠŠ, Pertti Sveholm, Aino Seppo, Janne HyytiŠinen, Elina Salo, Anneli Sauli.
    In Finnish with English subtitles.

    Related links: Official site | German site
    New York Film Festival 2002

    The Magdalene Sisters
    Man Without a Past
    My Mother's Smile
    The Son
    Talk to Her

    Festival site
    Arriving in a Helsinki railroad station, the man (Markku Peltola, who resembles a Finnish Jack Palance) falls asleep in a park, where he is set upon by toughs who beat him savagely and steal his money. In the hospital where he winds up, the doctor declares him dead. Yet he lives! Somehow, he manages to stand, to rip his IV tubes out, even to straighten his broken nose. Whether this recovery represents a indictment of the incompetence of the hospital staff or a bit of magic realism, we are left to speculate. However, the man does not stay in the hospital, as one might expect, to recuperate and begin an organized search for his identity.

    Staggering to a shipyard, he loses consciousness again but is rescued by a family of squatters who live in an abandoned cargo canister. Once he has been nursed back to health, then begins his highly entertaining odyssey of a modern-day Robinson Crusoe who manages to create a life for himself with no money, no memories, and no name. And herein lies the charm, the pull of this slyly understated film, in that one begins to wonder what one might do in the same situation, how one would fare.

    The man's lodging takes the shape of another shipping container, rented illegally by the shipyard's security guard. This seeming hard-ass, Anttila (Sakari Kuosmanen), displays crazily mercenary tendencies and yet speaks in the stylized way characteristic of KaurismŠki's people, stealing almost every scene he's in with hyper-articulate pronouncements about his control over the shipyard, guarded by his "vicious attack dog," Hannibal, who couldn't be less vicious.

    The Man Without a Past  
    Rolling up his sleeves, the man goes to work setting up house, cleaning out debris, getting electricity installed, planting a garden, even finding an junked jukebox that plays American rock and roll, R&B, and blues, appropriately enough.

    At a soup kitchen, the man meets a Salvation Army employee, Irma, played by Kati Outinen. She sizes him up as another sorry drunk, and summarily slices him up with a few well-placed strokes of her tongue. But she invites him to their secondhand store for new clothes, and there, after he cleans himself up a bit, he goes to find assistance. Irma even gives him a job working in the store sorting donated goods. Here, KaurismŠki handles the burgeoning romance with absolute tenderness and sure-footedness, as the man escorts the woman home, gently steals a kiss, and begins to transform and enrich not only himself, but her, and everyone around him.

    Though few facts are revealed about Irma, we soon see the quotidian misery of her life. Like the match factory girl also portrayed by Outinen in KaurismŠki's film of the same name, she lives a life of grinding tedium and indignities. A telling detail lies in the necessity for her to push a rolled-up rug against the enormous gap under her door for privacy. At bedtime in her sparsely furnished dormitory room, she sheds her Salvation Army uniform and her imperious manner with it. Even more revealing is the fact that she lulls herself to sleep at night with English-language rock music wafting over her from a bedside radio. Neither young nor old, yet radiating a quiet beauty, Outinen spins this wonderful character out of the finest wisps of action and expression, and this role has won her the Best Actress award at Cannes.

    The blossoming romance is but one element of the man's plucky reconstitution of his life, as he also takes on a project to manage the Salvation Army's young band, a four-piece combo that he introduces to American music (via his jukebox) and grooms for local stardom, playing at first to the local homeless population.

    But while the man is all action within the world of his creation, he finds his hands tied at every turn outside in society with its intractable rules. He soon finds trouble, having no name to give the employment agency, a factory personnel office, even to the police when he is detained for being involved in a bank robbery (possibly the strangest bank robbery on filmic record). Though his innocence is clear to all, bizarrely he is detained for refusing to give the personal information that he doesn't have.

    KaurismŠki draws a clear distinction between the people who inhabit the shadowy outskirts of life, preserving their basic human integrity as best they can, not judging others, and the mindless automatons of a society that insists on attaching a name to every face.

    As with all stories of amnesiacs, the moment must come when the character learns his or her true identity, and returns to the previous life. In "Man," at this point the film takes a bit of a downturn. Without giving it away, the ending seems slightly pat and too neatly bookends the beginning, particularly in the way the thugs get their comeuppance. KaurismŠki says of this film that it has "loads of dialogues plus a variety of colors — not to mention other commercial values." And it would seem that this attempt to compromise faults the film a bit.

    The variety of colors certainly livens up the film, especially in the early scenes of the squatters' village, as laundry flaps against a blue Finnish sky. The saturated colors, when depicting the dated fashions and visual details of the city, produce a warmly nostalgic feeling of the American '50s, especially when combined with the Western-style rockabilly music on the soundtrack and played by the Salvation Army band. Elsewhere the soundtrack skips eclectically amongst orchestral music, jazz standards, even a Japanese pop song, all suggesting a great love for music on the part of the director.

    "The Man Without A Past" certainly will delight and amuse those who prefer their wit bone-dry and pacing languid. Cynics need not apply.

    SEPTEMBER 8, 2002

    Reader comments on The Man Without a Past:

  • A Truly Great Movie   from Cai Rubin, Jul 22, 2004
  • the man without past comment   from claudio astudillo, Apr 30, 2005

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