'Song' ('Laulu'): Helsinki Review

Courtesy of Helsinki International Film Festival
A transporting encounter with Finnish folk culture

A master of a dying art finds a new student

A sometimes achingly beautiful devotional for a vanishing style of Finnish folk music, Selma Vilhunen's Song tenderly observes the relationship between an aging practitioner of rune singing and the young artist who becomes something like his apprentice. Its obscure subject and intimate nature present commercial challenges, especially absent one of those larger-than-life personalities that can make this kind of doc an art house sensation. But it deserves to be seen in hushed cinemas, and should be discovered by a discerning boutique distributor.

Vilhunen, whose short film Do I Have to Take Care of Everything? vied for an Oscar this year, sets the scene expertly, following visual artist Hanneriina Moisseinen up through frozen forest to a village in which only one man lives: 89 year-old Karelian folk singer Jussi Huovinen, who has lived here alone since his wife's death a year ago.

American bluegrass has been described as "high lonesome"; Huovinen's music, which he learned from his parents, is (s)low lonesome: Fragile melodies sung in a low register, which he accompanies on a bare-bones version of the Finnish harp called a kantele. Moisseinen listens raptly, and as she seeks her own take on his art he gives wise council. "You shouldn't pretend to be better than you actually are," he says, seeming to speak less of technical skill than about the performer as a person. Later she returns with an Icelandic musician friend, Solveig Thoroddsen, who swaps songs of her own with the old man. The two share an immediate rapport, and when the young woman leaves they hug for such a long time that both break into giddy laughter, not wanting to let the moment pass.

In the doc's second half, Vilhunen focuses more on Moisseinen, watching as she works on a visual art project that confronts the pain of having lost her father when she was a child. The filmmaker lets viewers draw their own parallels here, never making explicit the contrast between the singer's deep paternal legacy and the artist's own, which ended abruptly and mysteriously. She does, though, observe with approval as Moisseinen tries to craft her own kind of lore — joining other youngsters who are drawn to ancient music, not only for more visits with Huovinen but for a journey to "songlands" on the Russian side of the border. Judicious use of landscape photography emphasizes the ties these pilgrims feel to tradition and homeland in a time when it's assumed that an educated young adult will embrace a more global mindset.

Production company: Tuffi Films

Director-Screenwriter: Selma Vilhunen

Producer: Elli Toivoniemi

Directors of photography: Sari Aaltonen, Paivi Kettunen, Jani-Petteri Passi, Selma Vilhunen

Editor: Okku Nuutilainen

No rating, 78 minutes