Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki, 2006)
Finnish Title: Laitakaupungin valot
It's a tired plot; similar to the stories so often told in the film noirs of the past decades. The story of a man spiraling down to his dismal fate, often contributed by his irresistible attraction to blonde beauties. Aki Kaurismäki has dabbled a similar structure more successfully with his The Man Without a Past (2002); wherein the protagonist loses his entire memory during the first few minutes and traverses the path to self-discovery and self-identity. Lights in the Dusk is a lot drearier in atmosphere. While still brimming with Kaurismäki's brand of droll humor, the film seems to have been possessed by a spirit of pessimism. From its initial shots where the protagonist wanders in his lonesome while checking up on the mall he guards at night (Kaurismäki cruelly injects the background music of an opera singing a love song in Finnish; as if to insist on his protagonist his unwavering lack of luck in life and love), there's already a hint that the film will play on tragedy and cruel twists of inevitable destiny.
There's absolutely no point in self-discovery as the protagonist in this film, lonely night guard Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), knows his place in the world. He's the absolute loser. He dreams of grandeur (of starting up his own corporation), but has no backers and guarantors to secure his initial loan, as none trust him and all ridicule him, except for fellow loner Aila (Maria Heiskanen), proprietress of a hotdog kiosk Koistinen frequents. In one scene, after being rudely avoided by a bar girl and being mistaken as an inanimate object by the men's room, he looks straight to the camera --- the actor's eyes, his glum pout longs for attention, almost begging, always pathetic. When hot blond Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi) suddenly asks to sit with him in a 24-hour cafe, he is infused with a sudden urge of being somebody. He tries it out by trying to save a dog that's been left by a group of muscled bullies, and quite predictably, fails and is beaten up. It's a string of bad luck of Koistinen, swelled by faux opportunities and false hopes.
The film is consistently pretty. Timo Salminen's cinematography captures an absurdist's version of Helsinki --- uncharacteristically empty, bare, and infertile for a modern capital city. The citizens who do populate the city have glass stares and dull personalities; they are as bland as the monochromatic backgrounds Kaurismäki puts his characters' faces and body unto. The city, like in The Man Without a Past, serves as an accurate barometer of the protagonist's mental and emotional status --- Sad, friendless, cold, and unusually content with such pitiful predicament.
Lights in the Dusk, while still thematically consistent with Kaurismäki's ouvre, is a tad disappointing. It's borrowed plot, only distinguished by Kaurismäki's brand visual and deadpan humor, is too convinced of itself to initiate much greater depths as explored in The Man Without a Past. The film is predictable, as well as Kaurismäki's stylistic ticks (the prolonged shots before the fade-outs, the perfectionist musical cues, the chromatic tones, the dull acting and dialogue deliveries); it feels more like a second-rate repeat of what Kaurismäki has done more successfully in the past.
Unfortunately, while filmmakers of Kaurismäki's cinematic nature like Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others are exploring worlds and universes, it seems that the Finnish director has remained content of his stagnant stature. I'm hoping Kaurismäki soon finds his light in the dusk, the same way Koistinen belatedly does in this film's nebulous conclusion.