Friday, October 06, 2006


HAWAII, OSLO (2004, Norway, Erik Poppe direction/story, Harald Rosenlow-Eeg story/screenplay)
Do you ever visit the people you save?
Are you crazy?
Go visit her. The woman you almost saved. Never stop saving them.

Vidar is a good man who's haunted by his dreams. Haunted, because they come true. Like the one about the ambulance accident that kills his friend Leon? Which hasn't happened yet, but looks like it's about to.

When Leon is scared, he runs. Tonight, on the eve of his twenty-fifth birthday, he's very scared. He's papered downtown Oslo with posters: his photo, his phone number, and the words "ASA, HUSKER DU MEG?" - "Asa, do you remember me?" If he's lucky, if he's blest, his high school sweetheart will arrive tomorrow, and maybe they will marry. But Leon is convinced that Vidar's dreams say she won't show up. So Leon runs. And Vidar runs after him.

That simple story is at the centre of a kaleidoscopic film that traces the stories of a dozen or more characters until their fates converge on an Oslo street corner one hot summer night. The intricately constructed narrative draws comparisons with other multi-plot films with morality (or even metaphysics) on their minds, MAGNOLIA and CRASH in particular. Doug Cummings, an advocate for this regrettably obscure film, notes that "it resembles a companion piece to Kieslowski's THE DECALOGUE compressed into a two hour feature, less notable for its aesthetic innovations than for its emotional clarity and ethical complexity." What strikes me are the similarities to Tom Tykwer's work – so how's that for a Soul Food pedigree!

The Tykwer references are plentiful enough to suggest that Poppe may be paying intentional homage to the German director. The running Leon evokes a certain Lola, the accident of Vidar's dream is reminiscent of the LOLA event that launched Tykwer into THE PRINCESS + THE WARRIOR, and all three films are propelled by fateful robberies and desperately ticking time-bomb timelines. HAWAII OSLO begins with a stately fly-over shot, a God's-eye view of the city below, that's a recurring motif in Tykwer's HEAVEN, and both films end with ascending shots which are in turn reminiscent of PRINCESS. And certainly the heart-pounding climax of the Norwegian film owes much to RUN LOLA RUN and its subtly shifting reiterations of repeating events.

There's little I can say about HAWAII, OSLO without running the risk of spoiling its revelations and spelling out its mysteries – little I can say except, see it! Which won't be easy. The film was a sensation in its native Norway, it charmed film festival audiences wherever it played, and was the Norwegian entry to the 2005 Academy Awards. Nonetheless, it failed to find big screen distribution, and if it weren't for the good people at Film Movement (kind of a Book Of The Month Club for foreign and indie films), there wouldn't even be a North American DVD. When you're hunting for your copy, be careful little eyes what you read: the online reviews, the film festival blurbs, even (and especially) the distributor's description are likely to rob you of a good deal of the film's narrative and thematic satisfaction. Rosenlow-Eeg is careful to reveal the interconnections among his characters gradually, artfully, and much of the delight of the the story lies in the challenge of discerning who's who, and who's whose.

Track it down, invite your friends over, and give HAWAII, OSLO a look. Or two: this really is a film that grows on second viewing. First time through, I found myself distracted by some of the plot mechanics, and certain thematic elements which seemed over-obvious to me (though many other viewers find them plenty subtle, and perfectly effective). When I returned to the film, I was able simply to live with the characters, and I found their stories moving, and brilliantly performed. Some dialogue verges on the sentimental, certain plot developments flirt with contrivance, but I value what the filmmakers are reaching for, and the fact that they embody their story in performances of such integrity and believability that these quibbles are readily forgiven.

Layered and intricate, with a willingness to tackle big ideas and explore moral quandaries, this is an eminently discussable film. And when I say "moral quandaries," we're not talking ethical abstractions, but fully fleshed human circumstances. Example: faced with the certain death of his newborn son, a short-fused father alienates his wife as he flails about to force a solution. "This is something you can't fix. He has just a few hours to live. I don't want you to waste them." In her grief, she finds a certain wisdom that her striving husband misses. And yet…

One commentator responded less positively to this film than he expected to, and wondered whether he was growing tired of portrayals of communities of broken people, almost all of whom "are are coping with severe emotional, spiritual, or psychological damage." I think what distinguishes this film from others of its kind is the fact that so many of these admittedly damaged, even desperate characters aren't lost in their own woundedness but are actively, even habitually, striving to make things better for people around them. More than anything, it's a film about salvation – not necessarily divine salvation, though the film does gesture in that direction at times, but mostly just the common, everyday human variety that quietly sustains the world day after day. Mostly, I thing it's a film about about the ordinary ways that ordinary people save each other, or strive to, or fail to, but manifest something glorious even in the striving.

Available at Videomatica

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