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Tom of Finland
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by Jay Seaver

"Mostly upbeat and leathery, the way he drew it."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: There's delightful release toward the end of "Tom of Finland", as the title character visits California and discovers a world where things may not be perfect, but he doesn't have to hide that he likes men, and muscles, and leather. It's a moment of wonder that gets across just how much the audience, like Touko, has grown so used to the limits placed on him that they seem invisible until they're gone, and by getting in a spot to communicate that moment of joy, the filmmakers have perhaps done the best thing that biographers can by letting the audience understand their subject for a second, on top of just knowing the facts.

Touko Laaksonen's life might not look that unusual from the outside - he fought in the war with the USSR, moved in with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) afterward, would have liked to be a fine artist but took a job doing advertising work at the same firm where she worked, was well-liked but never married. He was gay, though, in a time where this was a crime, although you could find a community if you knew where to look. In the war, it was a park in the middle of the city, where he would have trysts with Heiki Alijoki (Taisto Oksanen), his superior officer, and Veli "Nipa" Nakimen (Lauri Tilkanen), an aspiring dancer. Touko (Pekka Strang) would encounter both again after the war - Heiki, now in the diplomatic service, when Touko gets into trouble for selling homoerotic cartoons in Berlin; Veli when Kaija doesn't realize her new boyfriend is in the closet. Years later, when he buys a little smut under the counter, he's surprised to learn that the drawings stolen in Berlin have been circulating ever since, and he actually has a cult following in America.

Laaksonen may not be a big enough name that the audience can be expected to come in knowing the details of his life, but there's a general slope toward personal and societal acceptance over the latter half of the Twentieth Century that the film can coast on a bit, from a time of police raids and absolute terror of being outed, to winks and nods, to overt acknowledgment. This framework is more conventional than it could be - though the film jumps back and forth in time, the filmmakers aren't doing this to hide something as much as skip relatively uneventful periods; given that he's known for his art, it wouldn't be surprising to see it come to life and tell the story, but his famous "Kake" character only pops up in a few moments rather than being given a life beyond Touko's imagination. It's fitting, perhaps - Touko is presented as a genial fellow whose deviations from societal norms are less rebellious than eccentric, and watching the film reflects both that solid reliability and playfulness.

The film and Touko's story is not all playful, of course - much of it cannot help but be about how Touko and his friends and lovers would have to hide their sexuality from the people around them, and director Dome Karukoski builds and maintains that tension throughout, taking full advantage of how Aleksi Bardy's script uses Touko's seeming recklessness to make situations a little more fraught. It's not for nothing that those first steps into the California sun seem like such a lifted burden, after all. It's important, though, that they don't make it seem like a joyless slog - the pictures Touko signs "Tom of Finland" are whimsical, funny cartoons, and even as Touko and Veli grow old together, they never seem interested in being just like straight couples; the film highlights a playfulness to gay culture that comes in part where sex is just sex, not a prelude to creating a family unit.

It's all reflected in the lead performance by Pekka Strang, who portrays Touko as being no caricature but is always able to put a little kink or never into scenes where Touko is fitting in with an advertising agency or a family reunion, while also capturing the tension of a man who has to hide but also knows that the safest thing to do is push back hard. It doesn't seem like a dominating performance, but it does overshadow some of the others a bit - Taisto Oksanen and Lauri Tilkanen are capable but not necessarily memorable as Touko's lovers, unlike Jakob Oftebro & Seumas F. Sargent, who go kind of big as Tom's American fans. Jessica Grabowsky manages to hold her own as Kaija, who is often positioned as having to reconcile loving and supporting her brother and tending toward the conventional herself.

Strang's mix of unassuming but eventually a bit more aggressive is reflected in the movie as a whole, as furtive moments in the park become more elaborate behind closed doors and eventually slides into the open, maybe not in the classy way the mainstream might hope, but with people being themselves and as a result kind of funny even when in trouble. Maybe the movie is too leathery for that mainstream, but not far underneath, it's appealingly friendly, which is the most important aspect.

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originally posted: 08/30/17 05:27:38
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  11-Aug-2017 (18)


Directed by
  Dome Karukoski

Written by
  Aleksi Bardy

  Pekka Strang
  Jessica Grabowsky
  Lauri Tilkanen
  Werner Daehn

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