NEW YORK — TO the surprise of nearly everyone - including himself - a Finnish filmmaker named Aki Kaurism"aki has become the most talked-about young talent on the world movie scene. It's surprising because Mr. Kaurism"aki is a quiet man who apparently cares little about promoting his work. And because neither his native country, Finland, nor his current base, Portugal, are known as launching pads for international film careers.
Then there are the movies themselves, which Kaurism"aki churns out at an enormous rate, breaking rules and defying expectations at every opportunity. Current ones include:
``Leningrad Cowboys Go America,'' which opened last week in American theaters. It's about a Soviet rock group - a very bad rock group - traveling through the United States en route to a Mexican wedding they've been hired to serenade. The musicians have long, pointy hairstyles and long, pointy shoes. Besides poking fun at pop fashions, the film satirizes pre-perestroika politics by making the band's manager a would-be dictator who eventually inspires mutiny among his underlings. From its title to its finale, this is one of the silliest movies I've ever seen. And one of the funniest.
``I Hired a Contract Killer,'' featured in the New York Film Festival last month. After losing his job, our lonely hero engages a hit man to end his misery - then scrambles to cancel the deal when love unexpectedly enters his life. French actor Jean-Pierre Leaud gives his best performance since his days of stardom with Fran,cois Truffaut and Bernardo Bertolucci; the other performers are equally in tune with the movie's exquisite blend of comedy, tragedy, and irony.
``The Match Factory Girl,'' also shown in the recent New York filmfest. Comedy and tragedy run another tight race in this minimalist fable about a young worker who's seduced, abandoned, and finally goaded into a revenge plan that's as outrageous as it is understandable. This film concludes a trilogy that began with ``Shadows in Paradise,'' the story of a lovelorn sanitation worker, and ``Ariel,'' about a rural man who comes to the big city. All three explore alienation with uncommon skill and intimacy.
Aki is not the only cinema talent in the Kaurism"aki family. His brother Mika is also a respected director, and together they have brought new vitality to Finland's movie scene, producing works by other filmmakers and distributing foreign pictures to Finnish theaters as well as directing their own films. They now work separately, planning their projects on an overlapping schedule so they can employ the same technical crew.
I met with Aki Kaurism"aki when he visited New York during the recent filmfest. He conversed amiably, but it was hard to imagine him barking out orders on a movie set, since he mumbles and mutters everything he says. ``It's a problem I have,'' he says, apologizing for his mannerism - then flashes a sly smile, as if to say it shouldn't bother you if it doesn't bother him.
Kaurism"aki fell in love with cinema at age 16, when he saw two classic films in a small-town Finnish movie club: Robert Flaherty's documentary ``Nanook of the North,'' about life on Alaska's frozen shores, and Luis Bunuel's surreal ``L'^Age d'or,'' a dreamlike assault on conventional values and logic. ``They opened my eyes,'' Kaurism"aki recalls, ``and I started to really see films.'' He had been drifting through life until then, but now had a goal: to make movies.
Kaurism"aki is a firm believer in low-budget filmmaking. If some producer gave him lots of money, he says, he'd use it to make it lots of movies rather than a single expensive picture. He lists a wide variety of directors among his all-time favorites. But he isn't impressed with Finnish movies, even though some exciting film activity has taken place in his native land recently. ``I don't go to Finnish movies,'' he says bluntly. ``Who would?''
With great consistency, Kaurism"aki's films deal with outsiders living on the margins of society - from his first picture, a modern adaptation of ``Crime and Punishment,'' to ``Calamari Union'' and the new ``Leningrad Cowboys Go America,'' both of which focus on groups of men trying, with mixed success, to get from one painfully ordinary place to another. Why does the theme of alienation crop up so often?
``I have absolutely no interest in making films about family problems of the middle class,'' Kaurism"aki replies in a serious tone. ``Middle-class life doesn't interest me. Losers do, because I'm a loser myself. It's all quite autobiographical. Instead of being in the New York Film Festival now, I could easily be [living] on the street ... and wandering around.''
As it happens, this ``loser'' has ``wandered'' into a position of international respect from critics and growing acclaim from audiences. As his reputation grows, will he be tempted into projects with larger budgets and bigger stars - perhaps in a Hollywood studio?
It's not likely. ``I have one principle in my life, which I will keep,'' Kaurism"aki says. ``I will never lay my feet on the West Coast of the United States.''