Spoilers – although since this film is based on a true story, revealing its outcome should not be too traumatic for readers (if there are any).
The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki is about a boxer, Olli (Jarkko Lahti), who in 1962 has a world title fight against Davey Moore (John Bosco Jr) in Helsinki. He loses. Easily.
I shall return to the final fight itself.
But really I only want to talk about a couple of things that feature prominently in this film, the main one of which is moments of play.
Olli is in love with Raija (Oona Airola) – and while he is keen on fighting, he is perhaps more interested in being with her, even ditching his training at one point in order to travel home to Kokkola, his hometown, in order to be with her.
This, together with Olli’s lackadaisicalness in general, exasperates his coach, Elis (Eero Milonoff), who has a lot of money riding on bringing a world title fight to Finland, having himself also been a competitive boxer and who travelled to the USA (where he claims he became friends with Frank Sinatra).
This is not, though, a tale of how preferring to be with women destroys the boxer’s competitive edge. Or if it is, then Juho Kuosmanen’s film certainly does not condemn Olli for this. Rather, The Happiest Day… is about not just about how love for a woman is perhaps more pleasing than fame and fortune obtained via pugilism. It is also in some senses about a more general kind of love that is characterised by play.
There are two key moments that signify Olli’s love of play. The first is when he skims stones across a lake with Raija and the second is when he discovers a kite stuck up a tree while on a run. We see Olli climb over a fence and begin to try to shake down the kite – before the film cuts to a long shot of a smiling Olli running through a field, the kite flying not far behind him.
These moments signal play because there is ‘no point’ to them. Olli is not trying to skim his stones further than Raija, and the flying of the kite is not for any reason than some sort of childish enjoyment of simply flying the kite.
In other words, play here is defined as a moment when one steps outside of the demands of capital, and instead enjoys things not for the purposes of making money, but the sheer joy of it.
Play is in this sense very different from sport, which is play subsumed for the demands of capital: play is not now playing for no good reason, but it is playing to win, with winning itself equalling economic and other benefits.
Play is a form of love because it expects nothing back from what it encounters – much as love itself should be disinterested and not so much about possession (capital) as about sharing, enjoyment and fun. Nothing is demanded in return in order to close off a deal; it is open and open-ended.
Sport, meanwhile, is about returns and about control. Indeed, Olli is no longer allowed to be who he is now that he is a professional boxer. Instead, he must modify his appearance, be that by purging his body of excess weight in order to achieve the appropriate size for a featherweight (57 kilograms), or standing on a stool in order to advertise a suit (Olli is shorter than the female model, played by Pia Andersson, who accompanies him in the photo, thereby clearly demonstrating the constructed nature of patriarchy as superior in the system of profit-seeking capital).
In an early scene, we see how Olli literally would not hurt a fly, while he also storms away from his training after Elis gets him to beat up a sparring partner against his will. It is not that he is without boxing skill; but he lacks the killer instinct.
What is more, during a sequence in which Elis has to find more money ahead of the bout in order to keep his life – and Olli’s title campaign – solvent, he goes to a sort of Masonic institution, where the sponsors of the campaign question that Olli might be a communist.
It is not that Olli need be a card carrying party member; rather, his is a world defined not by work, but by play, but a sense of equality in life, and also by associations with nature. Indeed, Olli seems happiest when training without the attention of the media and just for himself.
Widely reported for being shot on 16mm, the film would also seem in its form to suggest that it is playful: using equipment that is now obsolete, The Happiest Day… would want to tell us that filmmaking itself should be ‘useless.’
That said, the film nonetheless constructs a somewhat romantic or mythological version of Olli’s life and of Finland more generally. While Elis and others are clearly in life for the money, Olli and Raija are smiling, peace-loving characters who never seem to get too angry, while Olli’s most successful training seems to take place not just in nature, but also in a specifically Finnish sauna. That is, the film suggests that play, nature, communism and a lack of competitive, capitalist edge, is somehow a core and rural Finnish value.
While it is admirable that the film suggests that no one is a failure (since success and failure mean nothing) in the realm of play, it nonetheless provides us with a canny performance of failure, which in turn conceivably undermines the reliability of the film in terms of its moral message: the film wants to perform failure as actually success, but really this is a deliberate strategy, along with the nostalgic use of 16mm black and white photography, in order to give to the film a paradoxical use- and exchange-value, i.e. so that it can make money and thus serve the purposes of capital.
Nonetheless, perhaps at this point we can return to the final bout itself. It is so heavily anticlimactic that Olli’s naïveté is thoroughly exposed. But more than this: Moore’s ‘killer instinct’ does not seem to come from his arch-desire to make money (even if this was in real life the case), but more born from an understated sense of the suffering and anger experienced by a black American in 1962.
That is, Olli gets his arse handed to him in the fight as his comfortably Finnish life is confronted by the reality of trying to escape life under historical slavery – where the ‘escape route’ is not a retreat back into the country, but by explicitly hardening and disciplining one’s body in order to become a fighting machine that destroys Olli with ease. For, fighting is not for this boxer fun or play (and the film’s Moore seems to have none of the performed enmity for Mäki that we might expect from contemporary belligerents). As a result, Moore’s body becomes precisely a weapon in order to escape a reality in which there is no room left for either fun or play.
This in some senses also involves an occultation of history. For, Moore went on to be killed within a year of his fight with Mäki in a contest against Cuban-Mexican boxer, Sugar Ramos. Meanwhile, Mäki went on to have a relatively successful and certainly a long career as a boxer.
The Moore’s death at the hands of Ramos suggests that Moore is to Ramos as Mäki is to Moore. Where Mäki is too privileged a westerner really to be any good at fighting, so might Moore be not violent enough in his bid to break American history when faced with the fighter who expresses the extended violence of the continent that lies to the south of the USA. Read this way, Moore might fight to free himself from a history of slavery, but Ramos fights in order to try to break the monotony of capital world wide. That said, Moore’s death (and the violence of Ramos, who killed more than one boxer in the ring during his career) suggests the sad logic of boxing as a spectacle of pugilism, a latter day gladiatorial combat in which most participants fight for ‘freedom’ (riches) because they are not otherwise free to play, coming instead from deprivation and thus attuned to an everyday violence the suddenness of which takes Mäki completely by surprise. The film’s Olli has never experienced anything like it – and is not cut out for this violent world, even as the classed violence of the fighters is brought under the control of spectacle as opposed to contributing to a genuine revolution.
In other words, at its edges and in its framing of history, The Happiest Day… cannot help but betray its own privilege: the world of play is beautiful and in some senses outside of capital, and in a world full of love and play. But it is also a world of love and play that is precisely inside capital since only certain people can afford it.
In this way, the film’s performance of failure – the Olli Mäki of the film is not cut out for boxing – is really an expression of power – as perhaps the film’s circulation in art house cinemas rather than in multiplexes (where we get to see the boxing fantasies of the Rocky franchise and/or films like Bleed for This, Ben Younger, USA, 2016, regardless of whether they like The Happiest Day… are based on true stories or not). This does not make the film any less charming, nor any less valid in its critique of sport and its praise of play.
Nonetheless, we might bear in mind some of these contradictions that are – pun perhaps intended – at play as we watch this otherwise beautiful film.