Hawaii, Oslo (Erik Poppe, Norway)
The last film I’ll review for the PSIFF is perhaps my favorite, and solidifies the strong Scandinavian presence at the festival this year. The last couple of years have produced a number of ensemble films offering post-Altman, interwoven stories (two examples are Germany’s Lichter [Distant Lights] and Peru’s What the Eye Doesn’t See) but Hawaii, Oslo is the latest and most impressive of the bunch. It has been an enormous popular success in Norway, Variety has called it “one of the best Norwegian films made in many years,” and it’s the country’s official submission to the Oscars. But beyond these potentially dubious distinctions, it deserves all the praise it can get. (My Masters of Cinema cohort, Trond Trondsen, recently affirmed that “mass appeal” in Norway can be far different than “mass appeal” in America, pointing out that he remembered the time Norwegian television broadcasted Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage “and there was, literally, not a single soul in the streets of Tromso.”)
The film is apparently the second movement in a loose trilogy about Oslo co-written and directed by Erik Poppe; PSIFF offered its international debut (look for it in competition at the upcoming Rotterdam and Berlin fests). It’s popularity is no doubt partially due to its intricate interweaving of narrative strands in an emotionally captivating manner, and its performances are uniformly authentic and compelling.
But it’s also a masterfully designed film with impressive thematic reach. Each of the stories portray a moment of physical and/or emotional crisis requiring pivotal decision-making. Many of these situations are unified in time and space by an empathic character named Vidar (Trond Espen Seim) who works at a mental institution and who possesses exceptional intuition toward people he meets, suggesting a larger metaphysical perspective so endemic to Scandinavian art. It’s neither an exaggeration nor a mark against the movie to suggest that it resembles a companion piece to Kieslowski’s The Decalogue compressed into a two hour feature. And like Kieslowski’s work, Hawaii, Oslo is less notable for its aesthetic innovations than for its emotional clarity and ethical complexity.
I’m hesitant to describe the various plots to any great degree as discerning who the characters are and what his or her major conflict is comprises a large part of what makes the film so involving. (Avoid the distributor’s official English summary–and the various festival write-ups that merely paraphrase it–because it contains overt spoilers. Given its tight construction, the less you know about it the better.) Suffice it to say that the characters are all working class people and the settings revolve around everyday locations such as hospitals, prisons, churches, and cafÈs, captured with a sense of visual immediacy by Lukas Moodyson’s cinematographer, Ulf Brantas.
The film contains a number of stylistic quirks which could be perceived as flaws (such as the overly pictorial kaleidoscope imagery used for transitions and a muted electronic score that resembles something Vangelis would have written 20 years ago), but I didn’t find them distracting in the long run and actually began to appreciate them as the unique aesthetic identity of the film.
Hawaii, Oslo was recently released on region-2 DVD in Norway with English subtitles, so readers with multi-region players might consider tracking it down.