Juho Kuosmanen on Compartment No.6

Juho Kuosmanen's new film Compartment No.6 has been described as Finland's answer to Before Sunrise. We chat to this talented young filmmaker about this spiky, complex and rather delightful romantic drama

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 11 Apr 2022
  • Compartment No.6

Finnish writer-director Juho Kuosmanen is as unassuming a filmmaker as you’re likely to meet, although he’s every right to be cocky. After all, in his short career, he's had three films walk away with prizes at Cannes, the world’s most prestigious film festival. His mid-length student production The Painting Seller won Cannes’ Cinefondation in 2010. His debut feature The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki won the Prize Un Certain Regard in 2016. And his new film, Compartment No.6, was awarded the Grand Prix (essentially Cannes’ first runner-up prize) when it competed in the festival’s main competition last year. Given that form, he’s the potential to overtake the great Aki Kaurismäki as Finland’s most celebrated film auteur.

It’s no wonder the Cannes jury was taken with Compartment No.6. It’s a wonderful, bittersweet romantic drama where the actual romance is complex, nuanced and kind of sneaks up on you. Based on Rosa Liksomet’s 2011 novel of the same name and set in late 90s Russia, it follows Laura (Seidi Haarla), a lonely Finnish archaeology student who's travelling to the extreme northwest of Russia to see some ancient cave carvings. She’s going alone on this epic, multiple-day train journey because her Russian girlfriend has cancelled on her at the last minute. The travel companion who’s been forced upon her instead is Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov), a surly Russian miner who’s had too many shots of vodka. As movie meet-cutes go, it’s rough. But a bond gently forms between the pair.

We spoke to Kuosmanen at last year’s London Film Festival to discuss his fondness for telling stories from the past and his nation's tense relationship with Russia, which has only become more complex in the recent months.

What drew you to Liksomet’s book?

First of all, the train and the Russian scenery; I find both elements extremely cinematic. But I was also drawn to this situation where two people are sharing a close space, as it lets you study human behaviour. I was interested in this feeling of sharing the compartment with someone who's not your dream come true. But at the same time, it is what it is, and then you just have to deal with it. And if you accept it, then you start to see something really nice in it.

You didn’t make things easy for yourself with Compartment No.6, given that you shot on locations in real Soviet-era trains. Why did you want to take that approach?

People were asking me before and after shooting, 'Why did you want to do it like this, there are easier ways.' But I'm not interested in easy ways to film because that just usually means boring ways. You can't avoid obstacles, you can't avoid challenges and difficulties. But you can decide whether the difficulties are interesting and inspiring. So for me, it was an easy choice to shoot it in a real moving train rather than in a studio because in a studio I would just fall asleep. I'm not much interested in controlling the situation on a dozen sets. I'm more fond of seeing what will happen if we go to an interesting place.

The biggest challenge – or the most annoying challenge – was that I couldn't be in the same compartment with [the actors]. Usually I'm there next to the camera and watching the actors and the whole situation. But here I was in compartment number seven watching on a monitor, which means practically I was watching a 2D surface with two living objects. So the biggest challenge was trying to see them as complex human beings and not just direct the surface of what I was seeing.

Throughout the film you seem to be saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”. Ljoha and all the other working-class Russians Laura encounters on her journey appear to be rude and aggressive at first, but they all show themselves to have softer sides. Is that something you wanted to explore?

I think the biggest difficulties between Finns and Russians are two things. The past that we share – I mean we were enemies. And the language barrier. So if you go to Russia, you're more lost because you don't even know the letters and the language is difficult, and usually people don't speak English nor Finnish. And when you go there, it's not really polite, the way people behave on trains or in cafes or shops. At first you feel like they're a bit rude, and you feel like ‘OK, I shouldn't be here.’ Especially when you don't speak the language. The situation can be a bit, like, weird, Scary even. It's very uncomfortable.

But when you can step through that, if you can start to see through rudeness, you realise that it's not actually rudeness at all but just a lack of pretending. Like, if someone is working in a cafe and they are having a bad day, they are having a bad day; you don't really see fake smiles or anything like that. So people are not pretending politeness the way they might do in Europe. So when you realise that, that’s when you start to like the Russians and you start to like the atmosphere there. And I would say this is quite a common experience of people that I know who have visited Russia. At first there's a bit of difficulty in getting along with people. But then, when you start to get along, you start to see the warmth and the amazing hospitality of the Russian people, which is really beautiful.

Interestingly, the one person who actually turns out to be horrible is the Finnish guy, who initially seems very appealing and charming on the surface.

Yeah, I wanted to explore the predefined ideas we have of people that we meet, or predefined ideas in general. Like, the predefined ideas of the type of journey we will have, the kind of romantic ideas that are crushed by the reality of travelling. This guy, this guitar player, it's a small role, but it's a crucial role because it actually connects Laura and Ljoha. These two characters, they really are lonely. Like they know what loneliness is. And this Finnish guy with the guitar is somebody who doesn't really know what loneliness is, but he's using this romantic idea of a lone traveller to almost brand himself. When he steps into the carriage, Laura initially connects with him because they share the same language, they share the same nationality. But at the same time, they don't share anything beyond that. So when the Finnish guy leaves, it's a moment when Laura and Ljoha really realise that they feel the same: they know how it feels to be disappointed by life.

Both your feature films, Compartment No.6 and ...Olli Mäki, are period films. Do you prefer working in the past?

With Olli Mäki, it was a period piece and a boxing film, and those were two things that I really didn't want to do back then. But we felt that we couldn't really set that story in contemporary times. So with that film, we instead wanted to do it so that it would feel like a film made in the 60s. But with Compartment No.6, we wanted it to feel like a story that is told from our time but it had happened a while ago. So we wanted this film to feel like a memory, or like you were going through your diary and looking at the past.

But I don't know, to be honest, if I'm more fond of period films. What is a bit easier for me is that I see things more clearly in the past. I feel like when you're looking back you have permission to do things in a simpler, a more naive, maybe even a more romantic way than when dealing in contemporary times, where life is just a constant chaos, and you can't see things in a clearer way because it's just a mess. But when you think about something that happened ten years ago, you kind of have this natural narrative already and it's easier to see stories in the past.

Compartment No.6 is on general release now from Curzon

For more on Compartment No. 6, listen to the latest episode of The Cineskinny Podcast wherever you get your podcasts