Review: The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (2016)

Chasing happiness and finding it in unusual places.

by Antonio Cabello Ruiz-Burruecos 

The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (Hymyilevä mies, 2016) is a beautiful, honest, transparent black and white film of the purest cinematographic instinct.

Juho Kuosmanen’s movie was recognized as Best Picture of the Un Certain Regard section of this year’s 69th Cannes Film Festival. In many ways it treads back through the road traveled by Tony Richardson’s 1962 The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, made at the height of the British “Free Cinema” wave of filmmaking. Runner Colin Smith is to that movie what boxer Olli Maki is to this one, a film debut destined to filter into the nooks and crannies of our memories.

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The film is a biopic about Finnish boxer Olli Mäki (played by Jarkko Lahti), who is getting prepared during the Summer of 1962 for a combat destined to make history, as he will be vying for the featherweight championship title match. And yet as the night of the fight approaches he can only think of her, of Raija (Oona Airola). Best not to spoil what follows this succinct synopsis. The dilemma posited by Hymyilevä mies is best captured by this quote from boxer Manny Pacquiao: “Boxing isn’t about your feelings, it’s about performance”.

Just like Tony Richardson once did (digging into the roots of documentary filmmaking as well as the depuration of Italian neorealism), Kuosmanen chases with his camera that which we usually dub “happiness”; that warm feeling that gets under the skin and completely inundates the movie once Olli and Raija elope, gaze at each other and feel closer than ever. Suddenly their furtive, prohibited love story becomes universal through the dialogues written by Mikko Myllylahtin, the docu-style enforced by Kuosmanen, the melancholy photography of Jani-Petteri Pasi and the interpretative dance performed to perfection by Lahti and Airola.

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It is in that precise instant that we comprehend that that which we call happiness is not necessarily where we thought we would find it. Hymyilevä mies is the other (more hopeful) flipside to the cold, dehumanizing aspects of sports as evidenced in the Russian 2014 documentary Red Army (Gabe Polsky’s take on the Soviet Union’s infamous Red Army hockey team), erecting a drama that shatters the formal, narrative canon of films that have approached elite sports. And even then Kuosmanen takes it a step further, spurred by an unusual hero that is practically the antithesis of the sports idols we worship to this day.


TonioAntonio Cabello / Writer (Jaén, Spain – 1993) Producer and editor for Fremantlemedia Spain on TV shows, he studied journalism and audiovisual communication at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid. He also studied poetry, humanism and film criticism. Five years ago he founded Esencia Cine, for which he has covered the Cannes and San Sebastián film festivals. Life is time.

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