Throwback Thursday: Rare Exports (2003)

Back in 2003, Finnish director Jalmari Helander and his brother Juuso released a short film called ‘Rare Exports, Inc.,’ about an export company that hunts for a very special type of prey during the holiday season – wild Father Christmases. An interesting and bizarre concept, but the short became a hit on the festival circuit and was followed in 2005 with another short film, ‘The Official Rare Exports Inc. Safety Instructions,’ which detailed the horrific ramifications for not treating your wild Father Christmas appropriately. A few years later, Jalmari crafted a full-length film from those two short films, to explain the origins of the exporting company: ‘Rare Exports Inc: A Christmas Tale.’

It’s 24 days before Christmas, and an American company presses on with an archaeological dig atop one of the Korvatunturi Mountains. Pietari and Juuso, two local boys, hiding behind some crates in order to learn more about what’s going on so close to their homes, listen in as an American businessman extolls the importance of the dig in order to keep the men working. As the two boys head back to the whole the cut in the fence to reach the mountain, Pietari begins to wonder if something bad is inside the mountain, something to do with Santa Claus.

Back at home, Pietari begins researching Santa and uncovers terrible tales of the First Santa Claus, a gigantic demon with horns who tortured and sometimes ate bad children. Hundreds of years ago, the Sami people finally decided to take action against Santa and his cruel elves, luring him onto a frozen lake. The ice broke around him, and he soon froze inside an enormous block of ice. In the spring, the Sami fished the block of ice from the lake and carried it high into the mountains, burying it deep beneath one of the peaks.

Pietari believes the men on the mountain are trying to locate this Santa Claus that can only bring about bad tidings for him and the other children of his town. After falling asleep while on watch, he spies footsteps in the snow on the roof outside his second-story window. He runs to tell his father Rauno what happened, but to do that, he must venture into the family’s reindeer slaughterhouse where his father is hard at work. With eyes closed, he steps inside but at the last minute, doesn’t say anything to his father who is too focused on his work. Instead, Rauno decides to take Pietari to their reindeer roundup.

They realize something’s not right when only two reindeer run up the hillside toward the awaiting pen, and when they investigate, they find the entire herd massacred outside the fence leading up to the archaeological dig. Rauno and the adults discover the hole in the fence and immediately begin to lay blame on the men at the dig. Pietari uncovers a bloody, human footprint beneath one of the carcasses and realizes that Santa is out to get him and Juuso for creating the hole.

That night, Pietari wrestles with whether or not to tell his father what happened, knowing that telling the truth will probably save him from what he imagines Santa has planned for him. The next morning – Christmas Eve – Rauno discovers a strange older man ensnared in his wolf trap outside their home. While Rauno and his neighbors Aimo and Piiparinen try to figure out who he is and what to do with him, strange reports come from the town of radiators being stolen from every home, hairdryers and stoves, too. Pietari runs into the home of Juuso only to discover that instead of finding his friend in bed, he’s been replaced by a life-sized straw and wood doll.

Now that he knows for certain what’s going on, Pietari runs to tell his father just who the strange old man is. At first, Rauno doesn’t believe him, but when he sees the old man’s reaction to Pietari’s presence, he concocts an idea to sell this Santa Claus to the Americans, plotting to earn enough money to make up for the slaughtered reindeer. Unfortunately for Rauno and his friends, the old man isn’t quite what he seems to be, and soon it’s up to Rauno, Aimo and Piiparinen – lead by Pietari – to stop Santa and to find the missing children before Christmas Day.

‘Rare Exports Inc: A Christmas Tale’ was nominated for seven Jussi Awards (for the Finnish film industry) – including Best Picture. Though it didn’t win Best Picture, the film still managed to snag six of the awards and to earn a few more festival prizes along the way. The film is best described as a “dark comedy,” and while it has its moments, the humor is indeed dark and only occasionally pops up. But the humor never feels out of place within the steady pacing of the story. Actually, the comedy comes into its own toward the end of the film, and I couldn’t help but smile at what Rauno, Aimo, and Pietari were plotting.

Onni Tommilla, the young actor portraying Pietari, does a fine job carrying the film. The character begins as a naïve boy, still caught in the world of make believe where fairytales are real and winds up showing just how smart and adult he is when dealing with circumstances that should be beyond his control. His relationship with his father Rauno (played by Jorma Tommilla) is very believable, too, showing the strain of a widower trying to come to terms with having to parent on his own.

This film provides a great twist on the origins of Santa Claus, and for that, much credit is due to the Helander Brothers. It’s a clever idea that plays out very well on the big screen. I did have a slight hiccup with Pietari’s automatically turning to Santa Claus as the reason for the dig near the beginning – just because that seemed like such a huge leap to take without any reason. It’s the catalyst for much of what happens later, and I wish they had found something more concrete to plant the idea in Pietari’s head.

The film doesn’t rely on heavy special effects until near the end of the film so everything that happens beforehand – from the slaughtered reindeer to the life-sized dolls – has to be believable. Much credit is due to the team that put all that together, and especially to the costume and makeup people. They made the strange old man one of the creepiest characters I’ve seen, all with a bit of makeup and lighting to make his eyes freaky. The CGI work at the end is great, too, watching a herd of elves running through the snow-covered forest following a trail of children.

All in all, I found it refreshing to watch a Christmas-themed film and not have to listen to Christmas carols or to be inundated with angels and snowmen and decorated trees. If you’re in the mood for a different kind of Christmas tale, ‘Rare Exports Inc: A Christmas Tale’ is just the film you need. And if you purchase the Blu-Ray or DVD version, it contains both the aforementioned short films so that you can enjoy the entire Rare Export experience.