Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Film Review: December Heat

"December Heat" *** (out of ****)

"December Heat" (2008) is another film I managed to see at this year's European Union Film Festival in Chicago at the Gene Siskel Film Center. This film is from Estonia and as of the writing of this date, the film has no scheduled wide release date in America.

"December Heat" comes to us on the heels of some acclaim. It was one of the highest grossing films back home as well as being one of the country's most expensive films to date, being produced on a budget of 1.7 million euros. It was also Estonia's official nominee at this year's Oscars, though it didn't win one of the final nominations.

My initial interest to see this film was based on the fact I found the story-line interesting and because of the fact it was Estonian. I'm not Estonian but I do take an active interest in seeing films from countries that are often neglected. Recently, at the same festival, I went to see a film from Lithuania. I also have a strong interest in cinema from Slovenia, Bulgaria and Hungary. My knowledge of Estonian cinema is limited to the only other film I have seen from the country the rambunctious comedy "Made in Estonia" (2003).

Any viewer however should be able to tell that a film like "December Heat" must have been pretty important to the history of the country. The film tells us the true story of a 1924 coup d'etat when Soviet communist tried to overtake the newly independent Republic of Estonia. The film takes a similar approach I talked about in my recent review for the Hungarian film, "Children of Glory" (Szabadsag, szerelem 2006). We are being told history through the eyes of lovers. I suppose it is a convenient plot device for writers, but, sometimes it is not the best way to tell a story.

Here we follow a newly wed couple Tanel (Sergo Vares) and Anna Rouk (Liisi Koikson). He is a lieutenant in the army and she works at a telegraph station. She is fed up with the bitter cold weather and wants to move to France. He doesn't, but, as any married man will tell you, you often are going to do what your wife wants merely to avoid a headache. So they are on their way to France when, wouldn't you know it, a communist revolt begins, putting their plans on hold. The two become hostages and are separated. Now Tanel searches through the streets of Tallinn trying to find Anna. Meanwhile history is being made around them.

"December Heat" I must say is a well made film but lacks heart. It is nice to look at and I enjoyed a lot of the production and costume designs. But the film never really displays to an outside audience why this event is so important. The film doesn't have an emotional sweep most films of this genre normally do. There are few, if any, truly sympathetic moments. Moments when we feel a great connection to the characters on-screen and find ourselves rooting for them. Now, of course that can be a an example of culture clash. Perhaps audiences in Estonia had a much different reaction. I can tell the film wants to stir patriotic pride. But I wasn't as emotionally involved as filmmaker, Asko Kase, would have liked me to be.

Still I would argue this is a film that wants to have a historical, epic scope. It wants to tell us a great story of a great country. In some ways I thought of the work of the great Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda and some of his films such as "Katyn" (2009). "December Heat", like the work of Wajda, wants to put history on-screen. In some ways I feel it accomplishes what it set out to do. It nearly gets the feel of an epic correct.

The acting in the film I suppose is adequate. I took a strong liking to Liisi Koikson, but that mostly had to do with her beauty. Tonu Kark, who plays the real life character General Podder, nearly borderlines on comedy. He is suppose to be a strong, savvy officer, who almost single handedly saves Estonia from communist occupation.

"December Heat" is not a great film, but, it doesn't know it. It tries pretty hard to convince us it is a great film. Again, I liked some of the production and costume designs as well as the cinematography. I thought the film had a beautiful look. And in some ways I could relate to the story, because, like Estonia, Hungary tried to fight off the Soviets. So, I find these kind of stories interesting. I've heard the stories of people living under Soviet occupation and understand how difficult it was for many people. And I applaud "December Heat" for telling us this story. It seems like a story which needed to be told. But imagine how much more powerful the film would have been had there been more history, less of a love story, and more emotion. That would have been a masterpiece.