The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Before his big match

Finnish film “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”, which was belatedly released in South Korean theaters on this Thursday, is a modest drama film revolving around one real-life professional boxer who attempted on the World Boxing Association featherweight championship on one day of August 1962. While it actually focuses more on mood and character instead of that big match, the movie still engages us via its earnest storytelling coupled with lightweight charm, and it certainly earns its somber but solid feel-good ending.

After the brief opening showing its hero going to somewhere by train, the movie quickly establishes the romantic relationship between Olli Mäki (Jarkko Lahti) and his girlfriend Raija Jänkä (Oona Airola). When he comes to Raija’s house for attending the wedding of a family member of hers along with her and several other family members, we can instantly sense how much they are close to each other, and they come to consider being more serious about their relationship as attending that wedding together.

However, there is a very important thing in Olli’s life right now. While he works as a baker in his hometown, he has also been a promising new boxer in the country, and his coach Elis Ask (Eero Milonoff) already arranged a big international match which will be the definite highlight of Olli’s professional boxing career in one way or another. His opponent is none other than the current World Boxing Association featherweight champion, so Olli has already been getting lots of attention from not only his wealthy local sponsors but also the local media.

Besides losing enough weight for the upcoming match, Olli must focus a lot on honing his boxing skills more, but he cannot help but feel uncomfortable as being frequently on spotlight along with Elis. While attending a number of evening social events for those sponsors of his, he also must get accustomed to his training process shot by a documentary filmmaker, and the only consolation comes from Raija’s constant presence around him.

However, Olli finds himself more distracted because of his growing love toward Raija. When he participates in a press conference along with Elis, his eyes cannot help but attracted to Raija, who happens to be right behind a bunch of reporters asking him one question after another. During his training time, he becomes more aware of her presence, and it does not take much time for both Elis and Raija to realize what is going on inside Olli’s mind, which is helplessly in love to say the least.

The mood of the movie becomes a little more serious when Raija decides to do what is the best for her dear boyfriend, but the screenplay by Juho Kuosmanen and his co-writer Mikko Myllylahti steadily maintains its lightweight approach as lightly rolling from one small character moment to another. I was particularly amused by Olli’s rather drastic measure for losing more weight before the day of the match, and I also enjoyed an episodic scene where Elis goes to a meeting of those wealthy sponsors along with his children and Olli for getting more money as soon as possible.

It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Olli follows what his heart wants in the end, and the movie does not surprise you much in case of the eventual match between him and his opponent, but it surprises you as deftly balancing its hero between Elis and Raija. While she is surely glad to see Olli again, Raija is also well aware of how important the match is for him regardless of its result. While he is certainly annoyed when Olli does not follow his plan, Elis comes to respect Olli’s personal feelings, and they agree upon an alternative as confirming their strong friendship to each other.

I will let you appreciate how the movie pulls off its humble but touching finale, so I will focus more on the good chemistry between Jarkko Lahti and Oona Airola, who instantly click with each other right from their first scene in the film. Lahti, who actually began the preparation for his role even before the production of the film just because Kuosmanen told him that he might play the leading role, looks convincing during his character’s several training scenes in the film, and his likable performance makes us care about his character more along the story. In case of Airola, she is effortlessly charming as letting us discern what Olli sees from her character, and she and Lahti are also supported well by Eero Milonoff, who brings some life and personality to what could have been a thankless supporting role.

On the whole, “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”, which won the Prize Un Certain Regard when it was shown at the Certain Regard section of the 2016 Cannes Film Festival (It was also selected as Finland’s submission to Best International Film Oscar in that year, by the way,) may require some patience due to its low-key mood and storytelling, but it is worthwhile to watch for the amiable performances from its main cast members as well as its several admirable aspects including the black and white cinematography by Jani-Petteri Passi. As I told you already, this is a lot milder than “Rocky” (1976) or “Raging Bull” (1980), but I assure you that it will win your heart in the end, and, considering its original Finnish title (“Hymyilevä mies” means “Smiling Man”), you may end up smiling at its very last shot.

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