Frozen Land Review

Based on Tolstoy’s story The Forged Coupon, Finnish director Aku Louhimies’ Frozen Land (Paha Maa) takes a modern day outlook on the morally instructive story of how apparently minor acts of bad faith can have unforeseen consequences on a horrifying scale. More than just adapting this story to the screen, or even remaking Robert Bresson’s 1983 film version of the story, L’Argent, the director expands the theme and brings it up to date in order to consider the additional social impact of drugs, alcohol, depression and unemployment on the delicate balance of the human psyche.

The film takes the form of a series of interconnected incidents that arise from the firing of a schoolteacher from his job. Unemployed and alcoholic, the teacher has to pawn his TV and the hi-fi - an action that has a negative effect on his teenager son Niko, an unstable young man with a drug habit. Downloading and printing an image of a €500 note from a computer, Niko makes up for his frustration with his father by managing to pass the forged note off onto an electrical goods store. When the manager discovers the error made by the shop clerk however, rather than taking the loss, he passes it on to a customer pawning his television set. What started out from the simple, single incident of the firing of the schoolteacher then takes on a cumulative force as the wrong of one action is compounded by each additional act of bad faith to increasingly horrifying consequences.

For a young director, this is pretty challenging material, but Aku Louhimies appears to have a firm grip on the formal aspects of the film as well as delivering the thematic concerns with purposeful intent. Structurally, a clear and convincing line needs to be maintained in the interweaving chain of events, allowing sufficient time for each of a large ensemble cast of characters to be properly developed in order for the impact and import of what happens to be fully conveyed. When the form and content are as tightly interconnected as they are here however, there is certainly a great deal of risk involved in deviating from the purity of the clear moral line followed by Tolstoy in the original story and Bresson in his L’Argent. The director however wants Frozen Land to be more than just a morally instructive exercise, he wants it to say something about the present day circumstances of people in Finland, and he does so quite powerfully.

Louhimies successfully manages to make each of the characters completely real and take them beyond the stereotypes or even the models they are meant to represent. They are not just cogs who take the story on from one incident to the next - each of them has freewill to make a choice. Being human however, they make flawed judgments, and moreover, ones that are often impaired by the misuse of alcohol, illegal drugs or even prescription drugs. This takes an already complicated moral situation and adds another level of unpredictability, but rather than compromise the careful structure that Tolstoy has devised, this is actually thematically consistent with the chaos theory principles of the story.

Inevitably, such a chain of events can appear rather overly schematic and the butterfly effect they give rise to can place a strain on credibility, but it is entirely the aim of the story to stretch the imagination beyond immediate cause and effect and consider that there are longer term consequences to thoughtless and ill-considered actions – or any action at all. Occasionally it also may seem like the director is resorting to shorthand in order to squeeze everything in – the situation of a stressed-out police officer is summarised in a couple of rapid cuts between a bottle of pills, fighting kids and a mumbled “staff shortage” to her husband as she leaves for work – but rather, this technique demonstrates an almost Kieslowski-like precision for summarising a complex situation concisely and without unnecessarily overemphasis.

The Kieslowski comparison is not inappropriate or unmerited either. The subject matter lies very much within the Polish director’s explorations of chance, freewill and the unpredictability of the forces set in motion by human interaction. Like Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing, or even Bruno Dumont’s L’Humanité however, Frozen Land this exploration of the dark side of human nature is not comfortable viewing and you would need to be in a particular frame of mind to even want to approach it. There is a lot to absorb here and admire, but it must be said that the pleasures derived from the film are more likely to be gained from subsequent consideration of the issues it raises than from the rather difficult two hours you will have watching it. Just be careful where you pass on that pain…

Frozen Land is released in the UK by ICA Projects. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. Basic as ever, the menu consists of a single screen with only the option to ‘play’.

Basic though it is, the picture quality on Frozen Land is on the better side of average. It is at least anamorphic, with a ratio of about 1.80:1, and the quality is reasonably good, if not quite stellar. Colour levels are fine, as is the overall tone and clarity, but it lacks the extra definition you would expect. There are no visible marks on the print and on a CRT television the image looked stable throughout. On a progressive display however, excessive macro-blocking can be quite evident.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track certainly has depth and strength, with reasonably good stereo separation, but it lacks the kick that a surround mix ought to give to the film. Clarity is good for the main part, but the tone is on the dull and reverberating side and some scenes can consequently appear rather echoing and muffled.

English subtitles are fixed and cannot be removed. Curiously, they are left justified rather than centred, but the placement doesn’t seem to cause any problems.

There are no extra features on the DVD, or at least not on the checkdisc provided to DVD Times.

As an admirer of Robert Bresson’s studiously measured, impartial and perfectly pitched version of this Tolstoy story, I was somewhat sceptical and not warmly predisposed towards a film that appeared to be a pointless and needlessly grim remake. Frozen Land is not pleasant viewing, but I was however finally won over by the sheer force of the momentum that Aku Louhimies was able to achieve in the mounting horror of Frozen Land’s spiralling chain of events, and impressed by his ambition and ability to examine human nature and draw out even greater depths, ambiguities and modern social relevance out of the story’s already complex moral issues. I wish I could recommend this DVD more highly, but as usual, ICA’s barebones, basic transfers don’t make it seem all that appealing for anything more than a rental option.

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