Tuoko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) fought bravely for Finland during World War II, but when he returned home, the government in Helsinki began persecuting homosexual men. Touko finds solace in his art, especially his fantasy drawings of muscular men, and turns his refuge into fame and becomes “Tom of Finland.”
I only had a passing familiarity with Tom of Finland and his hugely popular uber-masculine homoerotic art over the years, so I did not know what to expect from Finnish director Dome Karukoski’s Tuoko Laaksonen biopic. It is a well acted, directed and written tome that gives us a vivid view into the life of the artist and the creation of now-world renowned moniker, Tom, and his distinctive eroticism.
Pekka Strang gives a convincing and rather elegant performance as Tuoko. His story spans some 40 years, from the horrors of war to finding comfort with his fellow soldiers to the early beginning of his unique art works. Those works, with their vivid homoerotic images were a clandestine hit in the local gay community in Helsinki.
In the early 1960s, Tuoko’s photorealistic drawings crossed the Atlantic to the US, a much more gay community friendly society, at least in places like the Village and San Francisco. His art became a hug sensation and Tuoko-now-Tom’s reputation and fame blossomed. During those decades, though, he and his art underwent trials and tribulations of censorship and negative image at the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Today, his art is iconic.
“Tom of Finland” shows a world little known to our mostly straight society and the filmmakers give an honest and informative view of a man whose life-long work helped many find themselves in their LGBT universe. I give it a B+.
When approached by an officer during WWII and asked what he wanted to do after the war, Touko Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) said he'd like to play the piano and paint. 'Ah, an artist!' replied Heikki Müller (Werner Daehn) appreciatively. The two men had recognized each other's homosexuality, but Heikki would remain closeted, even undergoing psychological conversion therapy, whereas Touko's homoerotic fetish drawings of men in uniform and biker gear would be celebrated in the U.S., where an American magazine editor would dub him "Tom of Finland."
Finland's entry for the 2017-2018 Foreign Language Oscar is an unusual biopic spanning decades, directed by Dome Karukoski with stylish flair. Karukoski and writer Aleksi Bardy find Touko's influences within his experience, then weave them visually throughout the film. When Touko witnesses a Russian soldier parachute into a field, he ambushes and stabs the man, turning the body over to reveal a handsome blonde with a mustache. We will see this face crop up in Touko's drawings again and again, the life he took haunting him.
When he returns home from the war to live with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky), he opens up about his sexual preference, a lifestyle she forcefully condemns. And yet the two continue to live together, their relationship close, the boarder, Veli (Lauri Tilkanen), Kaija finds becoming Touko's long time lover until his heartbreaking death from AIDS. They make for an oddly harmonious threesome. Kaija was also an artist, but had little belief in herself despite her brother's praise and support.
Although Touko made a living selling his illustrations in the U.S. during the 1950's, his fame really took off in the swinging 70's when Californians Jack (Jakob Oftebro, "Kon-Tiki") and Doug (Seumas F. Sargent, 2015's "Point Break") convinced him to make the trip and witness the subculture that celebrated him.
The film features plenty of humor and heart as it follows Touko through the changing mores of his lifetime. Karukoski does his subject proud, his own artistry with visuals and sound complementing the artist and the art he depicts.
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