The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki

Summer 1962 and Olli Mäki has a shot at the world championship title in featherweight boxing. From the Finnish countryside to the bright lights of Helsinki, everything has been prepared for his fame and fortune. All Olli has to do is lose weight and concentrate. But there is a problem – he has fallen in love with Raija.

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  • ★★★½ review by Jonathan White on Letterboxd

    TIFF16 Film#5

    Reason for pick – Premise and timeslot.

    So Finland has more directors than just the Kaurismäki brothers? Who knew?

    This true story about a modest young Finnish boxer, the first ever Finn to have a shot at a world title, is filled to the brim with wholesome sweetness. Never saccharine and never plucking at heartstrings, director Juho Kuosmanen tells the simple tale in the way of the man himself, Olli Maki. You don’t laugh, cry, or even cheer, you just quietly smile, and maybe have a little chuckle once in a while.

    Jarkko Lahti brings the humble Maki to life with warmth, charm, and believability. Likewise first feature actress Oona Airola renders a delightful Riaja, the apple of Maki’s eye. There is a special chemistry between the two, and Maki’s new love for her is manifest; especially when she isn’t near.

    Kuosmanen and Cinematographer Jani-Petteri Passi create a wonderfully intimate 60’s documentary look with their grainy black and white 16mm photography.

    One of those tiny gems that shows that less sometimes really can be more.

  • ★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd

    Finland does anti-Rocky by way of an uneventful black and white rom-com.

    Uneventful is good, by the way. Olli (Jarkko Lahti) realises he's in love with his girlfriend, Raija (Oona Airola) while he's in the middle of a press conference for the announcement of his featherweight world title boxing fight in Helsinki in 1962. From there, it is all about doe-eyes, face-pulling for photos and left-footed dancing. Well, that's in between the training for the title fight, which Olli doesn't seem all that interested in (the fight or the training).

    Nor does director Juho Kuosmanen either. In fact, most of the training for the fight is given over to Olli's weight loss regime and that's all about steaming in saunas with the team and running kites through fields of beech trees.

    The Happiest Day in the life of Olli Mäki is my kind of boxing film.

    Jani-Petteri Passi's sumptuous, old school photography is the real kicker, though. It comes complete with screen burn on the lights (those lights being attached to bikes carrying passengers up front nouvelle vague style.

    Stillness, quiet quirk and one of the most apt cameos you're likely to catch all year (but you'll have to scan the credits to recognise its beauty).

  • ★★★★½ review by Jakub Flasz on Letterboxd

    The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is a compact little vehicle of narrative simplicity, thematic richness and period detail. Based on real events that saw Olli Mäki, a Finnish underdog, face off against a Championship belt holder, the film is a very interesting character study that also happens to dip its toes into other wells, such as using an unsuspecting athlete to generate wealth on the back of his his hard work, the idea of crossing the line between observing someone and encroaching onto his territory and a strain such situations put on the delicate fabric of romantic relationships.

    It doesn't happen all too often for a film this simple to carry so much on its featherweight shoulders. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is an easy, watchable and entertaining character study that also has a lot to say about many diverse subjects. I can't think of many biopics as dense as this one, if it can even be labelled as such. This is a great slice-of-life dramedy that does a great job recreating the atmosphere of the time and giving some insight, albeit not overly intellectualised, into the complexity and emotional hardships that are implicitly associated with preparing for a high-profile sporting event. However, this is not a boxing film. Olli Mäki isn't Rocky Balboa and the film isn't really interested in his journey as a boxer. The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki is an exploration of the undoubtedly dehumanising aspect of unintentional celebrity that sees a man thrown completely outside of his comfort zone as a result of having his peaceful life invaded by cameras, documentary crews, sponsors and various other interested parties.

    Ultimately, though, this is not a tragedy one could easily see this story devolve into; it is a highly energetic, life-affirming story about how love in its purest form can keep a man going in a situation where his humanity is being tossed aside. Ironically, the film's title – The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Mäki – referred to in a conversation between Olli and his coach who dreams of him miraculously winning his fight, bringing pride to Finland and immense opportunities for both of them ends up looking slightly differently. It turns out that happiness doesn't need to equate to success. Sometimes it's just the opposite and the filmmaker makes this point perfectly.

    What a great little film.

  • ★★★½ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd

    [7]

    A case of a film with a narrow set of aims, achieving each and every one with flying colors. Or with graytones, I suppose -- director Juho Kousmanen and cinematographer J.P. Passi bring Olli Mäki to life with an increasingly rare, old school black and white look, all swirling grain and rich tonalities. But apart from simply looking great, the movie has a hook. What if a talented young boxer got swept up in a nation's Great White Hype, but honestly didn't care whether he won or lost?

    Granted, it isn't quite that simple. Olli (Jarkko Lahti) is dedicated to his craft, and gives it his all when properly motivated. But he displays more than a little ambivalence about going pro, especially since as far as management goes, former low-level champ Elis (Eero Milonoff) is the onlu game in town. Thanks to his promotional skills, Elis soon has the whole of Finland behind Olli as a potential world lightweight champion, set to fight current champ Davey Moore (John Bosco, Jr.) for the title. It's a mismatch from the beginning, and it doesn't help matters that Elis has Olli fighting in a lower weight class than he ought to be.

    Unlike other underdog-centered sports films, the suspense model isn't about whether or not Olli will triumph. (That's assuming that, like me, you didn't know the details of the real Olli Mäki's career beforehand.) It's more along the lines of, will be get clobbered or will he wise up and call off the fight? After all, Olli is in love with his hometown sweetheart Raija (Oona Airola), who doesn't care whether he's a boxer at all. She just wants him to be happy.

    Of course, Elis sees Raija as a distraction, the training regimen leaves her bored on the sidelines, Olli is swept off to pose for photos with sponsors ... Numerous forces pull them apart. But Juosmanen, shall we say, pulls no punches. It's clear from the jump that Olli and Raija will end up together, provided there's still some Olli left to scrape off the mat at the end of the bout.

    It would be an oversell to say that The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is an anti-sports drama, but it does achieve something quite rare. It's a character study of a man for whom the sweet science is but a means to an end, not a driving passion. In this regard, Olli is actually an athlete-hero for the rest of us.

  • ★★★★ review by Rick Burin on Letterboxd

    So it begins!

    London Film Festival 2016: Film 1

    A completely charming, disarming Finnish film, based on a true story, about a boxer who falls in love whilst preparing for a world championship fight. Shot in grainy monochrome, it reminds me a little of Truffaut in its grace notes (lovely, self-contained sequences of children) and also of Half Nelson – with its eye for an arresting, unexpected image or sentiment – though its sensibility, and its sense of humour, are all its own.

    Whatever their quality, boxing movies tend to be bruising noirs about proud patsies (Body and Soul, The Set-Up, Champion), shameless stories about underdogs (Rocky) or cynical, bruising portraits of disconnected losers (Raging Bull). Olli Maki, with its humble hero, quiet humanity and knockout ending, could scarcely be more different.

    Occasionally it seems unfocused or long-winded, but the performances from stage star Jarkko Lahti (as Olli), newcomer Oona Airola (as his ordinarily beautiful new girlfriend) and Eero Milonoff (playing his ex-champ of a manager) are really fresh, credible and well-judged, the bits of off-kilter humour mesh nicely with the affecting central storyline, and the film’s blending of realism, sweetness and surprise makes it a richly enjoyable experience.

    A cracking start to the festival from debuting feature director Juho Kuosmanen – who won ‘Un certain regard’ at Cannes for this one.

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