A Film a Week - Tom of Finland

Is it possible for us, the inhabitants of contemporary world, to imagine all the forms of discrimination that were not just socially acceptable, but also incorporated in the official laws just a few decades ago? How the racial segregation was possible, not only in America, but also in the communist Eastern Block? Can we imagine that women had no right to vote in Switzerland less than 50 years ago? How about gay rights in socially conscious Scandinavia? Can we believe that in Finland it was illegal to be gay until the 70’s, that it was declassified as a disease in the 80’s and that gay propaganda (whatever that is) was punishable by law until the end of 90’s? Dome Korukoski’s Tom of Finland is a story about such times.

The title is a pseudonym of an artist, the author of hyper-sexualized, pin-up style gay-themed drawings that gained a lot of popularity in gay circles in America and subsequently in Europe in the 60’s. Let us be frank, it can hardly pass as art, and it never got mainstream, but it got the attention in the circles it was aimed to. The author of the drawings was a WW2 veteran and an emloyee of McCann-Erickson Helsinki office Tuoko Laaskonen, the man who had to spend his life flying under the radar in his own country.

We meet Tuoko, played with an elegance by Pekka Strang, as a soldier fighting both the Soviets and his own desires, or pursuing them covered by the fog of war. The peace does not bring him any good either: having his first lover and the muse Kake lost, he struggles with depression, constant nagging by his conservative sister (Jessica Grabowsky) and the oppressive society in the form of the police hunting down gay people in parks and clubs. Though, his work provides him a steady living and he can express himself through his art. His trip to more cosmopolitan Berlin ends as a near-disaster, having his drawings and belongings stolen, and barely saved from exposure by his ex commanding officer. However, Tuoko is determined to live his life his own way, especially when he starts the relationship with his tenant-boyfriend (Lauri Tilkanen), and he sends his art to American magazines. The drawings were a huge success and the rest is history: as a cult figure, Tom went to California several times, meets the budding scene (among others Jakob Oftebro’s Jack and Seumas F. Sargent’s Doug) and became a celebrity.

Even though the issues of intolerant society and AIDS panic are addressed, Tom of Finland is not an activism-minded, awareness-rising film. It is more of a standard bio-pic. Having that in mind, the framing with an old Tom in a space resembling waiting room is completely unnecessary and the niche value of Tom’s art is never stressed enough, since the its conventional value is highly questionable. But Korukoski and his army of hired scriptwriters succeed in portraying the uncertain times and one man’s struggle for a life on his own terms. The production does not seem exactly lavish, but the locations look real and the period details were recreated nicely. With a strong lead, an important topic and a neat storytelling, this international co-production works as a solid piece of cinema.

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