Published Sep 01, 2013Pirjo Honkaselo's first narrative film in 15 years, Concrete Night opens, quite exquisitely, with a dream. Fourteen-year-old Simo (Johannes Brotherus) stands in a black & white concrete landscape, crisply defined by shades of blacks and grey. Bright flashes of light briefly cut through the shadows — an aesthetic maintained for the duration of the film by cinematographer Peter Flinckenberg— helping Simo witness a bridge collapse and train derail, thrusting him into a contained water environment, unable to escape, awaiting his demise.
This claustrophobia and impending sense of doom ultimately define Simo's universe, one even less appealing when awake. Living in a rundown Helsinki slum, he spends his days in a garbage-strewn apartment with his absent alcoholic mother (Anneli Karppinen) and drug-dealing thug of a brother, Ikko (Jari Virman), escaping on occasion to frolic in the nude with a friend by an abandoned, presumably toxic, factory adjacent a watering hole.
The presentation of men and boys in a sexual, objectified state, nude or in underwear, is not accidental. Simo gazes at his older brother — a sibling he's about to lose to the prison system on a drug charge — with simultaneous awe and desire, excitedly engaging in play fights, moving in closely whenever possible and desperately trying to emulate the image Ikko projects onto him. Our protagonist, when not staring across the street into the apartment of a neighbouring homosexual, lingers on his own face, looking into a mirror that is perpetually obscured by steam (a rather obvious metaphor for forced introspection and distorted identity presentation).
In addition to being trapped by the inevitability of the future amidst the titular concrete night, Simo is also a prisoner of his desires, terrified of the homosexual urges his prissy body language and effeminate strut are unable to mask. It's the sort of thematic vein that, when mixed with the feverish, monochromatic and analytic aesthetic, feels very much like the Western queer cinema of the early '90s, which examined similar themes of self-loathing and psychological ambivalence in a destructive capacity.
What's of distinction here is the consciousness of affectation and the litany of signifiers going into one's perception of self and need to assimilate to a desirable norm. Ikka unloads a host of nihilistic, pro-globalization and pre-hedonistic vitriol on his younger brother, pointing out how absurd it is for humans to live for tomorrow when the animal kingdom evolves through a free, impulse-driven state. Contrarily, Simo's homosexual neighbour describes the spectrum between fear and love, noting that greed and indulgence are indicative of fear, an emotion that stems, in part, from ignorance.
How these contradicting theories apply to the existence of a lower class slum within the modern lexicon of global politics isn't particularly complex, but what is interesting is how Simo reacts, tragically solidifying his fate and performance of self.
Although shot with precision and beauty, lingering on imagery that heightens the experience of a boy trying to figure out how to accept himself, Honkaselo is too preoccupied with the theoretical implications of the text, rather than all things emotional. While the story is tragic, often retreating into expressionistic territory to accentuate the feelings Simo is coping with, it always falls short of embracing his experience as something contrary to the crassness of his surroundings, where people urinate on public transportation and have sex in alleyways.
In short, even though characters slobber over themselves crying, the analytical nature detracts from the intensity of what eventually unfolds, leaving Concrete Night to have less lasting effect than intended.
It's almost inevitable when trying to construct a narrative that comments on politics and sexuality within the same framework. However, this isn't necessarily a fault, since a more emotionally driven rendering of this tale could just as easily be criticized for indulging in sentimentality.