Holiday Viewing: Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale
Some Santas belong on the naughty list
By Richard Whittaker,
12:01AM, Sat. Dec. 9, 2017
"The Coca-Cola fairy tale is a hoax." When young Finnish boy Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila) makes this stern announcement in Rare Exports, he's not saying "There's no such thing as Santa Claus." He knows better than that.
The Coca-Cola Company has been sweetening up the American way of life ever since John Stith Pemberton first perfected his sugary treat in 1886. But its greatest saccharine injection came in 1931, when artist Haddon Sundblom perfected the modern depiction of Santa Claus. The rosy cheeks, the bushy white beard, the red suit. You can even hear the ho-ho-ho as he takes a slug from that classic twisted bottle.
But that's not Santa. That's a myth turned into a brand. And the myth will always want to come back.
In rural Finland, up in the wilds of Lapland, Santa is Joulupukki. According to lore, he lives on the slopes of Korvatunturi, near the Russian border. That's where he and his assistants, the joulutonttu, make toys. Its name literally translates as Ear Fell, referencing its curved shape: supposedly, Santa uses it to listen in on all the girls and boys throughout the year.
That's fine if it's Sundblom's Santa spying on you. But Joulupukki, he's a devil with teeth so sharp that all the sugar acid water in the world could never blunt them. His name translates as Yule Goat, and he is a cousin to the more recognizable Krampus. Before his commercialization, he roared through the snow-covered forests and frost-wrapped plains as part of the Wild Hunt, dragging the unlucky to an unknown fate. That's who Sundblom, the son of Scandinavian migrants, turned into a cuddly old codger. But in Rare Exports, the ancient spirit is back, casting off his candy-covered wrapping and picking up his wintry haunt where he began.
Director Jalmari Helander first gave the old devil his horns back in a series of seasonal shorts, but in 2009 he converted them into a full feature. A deranged tycoon (Jalmari Helander) thinks he can level a mountain to steal the corpse of Santa Claus from its bowels. Only it's not Santa. It's Joulupukki, and the ancient Sami people that buried him so deep knew exactly what they were doing.
Cut away the fantastical elements about Santa Claus being sealed in a giant ice chamber, and his elves wreaking havoc across Finland. What Rare Exports is really about is the commercialization of Christmas. It's about the battle between tradition and capitalism's most blindly destructive impulses.
It's not an accident that the heroes of the narrative are Finnish reindeer herders, following in the traditions and customs of the Sami. When they get greedy, that's when they are in the greatest sudden and bloody peril. Of course, it's not really of their making: they didn't blow the top off Santa's tomb (a clear reference to mountaintop removal), and it wasn't them that scared the wolves and unleashed the elves or killed all the reindeer upon which they depend. So in their final ingenious solution/revenge for what has been inflicted upon their age-old way of life, it's a chill and a thrill that would make Sundblom shudder.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale is streaming now on Amazon Prime and Shudder, and available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Throughout December, the Chronicle film team is highlighting some of our favorite seasonal film and TV offerings. Find a new recommendation every day at our Holiday Movie Advent Calendar.