Newcomer Finnish filmmaker Juho Kuosmanen’s “The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki” is earning praise for its unexpected humor and romance.
After all, it is a boxing movie.
“I found Mäki’s story very funny,” Kuosmanen told TheWrap’s awards editor Steve Pond on Tuesday night during a Q&A hosted by TheWrap at the Landmark Theater in Los Angeles.
Shot on 16mm black and white, the biopic centers on one of Finland’s greatest boxers, Olli Mäki, when he fought for the World Featherweight title in 1962.
The film won this year’s top prize in the Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival and is competing in this year’s Oscar race for Best Foreign Language Film.
It depicts a surprisingly ambivalent Mäki, who is played by Jarkko Lahti, as the athlete experiences an inner conflict about the media circus surrounding his pending match.
“I felt he was interesting because there is a contradiction between his personality and the boxing,” said Kuosmanen, who described the real Mäki as being decidedly lighthearted.
Included in the film are Mäki’s real quotes to media at the time, which were essentially the polar opposite of the trash talk we’re accustomed to hearing from boxers nowadays. “At least I won’t lose to a bad opponent,” he said (in real life and in the film).
The timing of the match coincided with a blossoming romance between Mäki and and his future wife Raija, played by Oona Airola. With hearts in his eyes, he couldn’t care less about promoting the match.
Mäki is from the town of Kokkola, Finland. “I’m from the same town,” said Kuosmanen, explaining the reason he was familiar with the boxer’s story before he wrote the script.
The writer-director first shared his vision of the film with Lahti five years before filming began. The actor started training right away, with a seeming lack of awareness that filming wouldn’t be taking place for quite a while. “He trained for five years for this,” said Kuosmanen. “He took two fights and lost them both,” the filmmaker added with a laugh.
As for the real Mäki, he appears alongside his wife Raija in a fitting cameo as they stroll past the actors playing them. “Raija still enjoys it,” Kuosmanen said of the film.