Tom of Finland: a film of hope, sympathy for underdogs and inspiration to others suffering hardship and oppression

Dome Karukoski, “Tom of Finland” (2017)

As a general introduction to the life of gay icon Tom of Finland, real name Touko Laaksonen, for a general viewing audience, this film is adequate enough. Spanning roughly four decades, it follows Laaksonen (Pekka Strang) from his youth when he was conscripted into the Finnish army to fight the Russian enemy in the late 1930s / early 1940s, to his eventual fame as an artist specialising in drawing hyper-sexualised erotic gay pornography. Early on, Laaksonen kills a Russian pilot and this incident haunts him on and off throughout the rest of his life. After being decorated for heroism during World War II, Laaksonen finds himself isolated and marginalised socially because of his homosexuality, in a period when homosexuality was illegal and couples engaging in furtive sexual activity in parks and public toilets at night were hunted down and beaten up by police. Frustrated, Laaksonen pours his troubles out into homoerotic drawings of hyper-masculine beefcake fellows in skin-tight leather biker outfits and lumberjack clothing. In the meantime, Laaksonen’s sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) helps him get a job at her advertising agency employer and also invites a young male dancer Nipa (Lauri Tilkanen) to be their tenant to help pay the rent: Laaksonen realises he has met Nipa before and that Nipa is also gay.

Kaija had hoped Nipa would be the love of her life and for a while the two do act like a couple. Eventually though – the film does not make this too clear – Nipa and Touko become the couple and Kaija accepts and tolerates the relationship. The two men conduct their relationship clandestinely at secret underground clubs and a diplomat’s home until one evening when police raid the diplomat’s mansion and make arrests. The diplomat himself is exposed as gay, loses his job and is forced to undergo treatment to “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies.

After seeing Touko’s drawings, Nipa convinces him to send the drawings to a publisher in the United States. After publication, Touko’s work (under the Tom of Finland name) becomes popular with the gay community in California whose members use the sketches as part of their code to signal to other gay men who they are and if they are sexually available. In due time, Touko earns enough money from the drawings that he and Nipa can buy their own apartment, furnish it how they want (with yellow curtains that Touko calls “sissy”) and live fairly openly as a gay couple. Touko no longer needs to work at the advertising agency and can devote his time to drawing homoerotic pictures. He is brought to the US by two fans where he is introduced to the gay biker sub-culture which his pictures helped to inspire. By this time though, Nipa has been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer and his ailment is the precursor to the HIV – AIDS crisis that hits gay communities around the world hard. Touko is anguished that his drawings may have encouraged the promiscuity associated with the disease and with the help of his American friends resolves to help fight the disease and the politically conservative backlash against gay people.

As a film espousing hope and sympathy for the hardships that gay people have had to suffer, “Tom of Finland” probably has few equals. Unfortunately though the film gives little information about how society in Finland changes over the decades from one hostile and repressive towards homosexuality and homosexual people into one more tolerant and relaxed enough to make a film celebrating Laaksonen as a significant cultural icon. We do not learn when homosexuality was decriminalised in Finland (the year was 1971 when the law was changed) and when it was declassified as an illness (1981). The film’s narrow focus on Touko’s personal life and relationships to the exclusion of the changing social context around him robs it of a definite linear structure that would have given it more direction and made the film more relevant to a non-Finnish audience.

For a film with not much plot to work with, “Tom of Finland” is surprisingly absorbing, perhaps because its central characters are stoic yet sensitive, and need to be pushed by other people to get what is due to them. Touko needs Kaija to get him out of his post-war depression and needs Nipa to prod him to send his artwork to a publisher, setting in train the distribution of the drawings that will make his reputation. Kaija herself needs pushing but tragically rejects opinions that her own artwork is good and worthy of exhibiting. Seeing Kaija being left behind as an artist whose potential remains unrealised, and as a lonely spinster figure heavily dependent on mainstream approval and scornful of her brother’s “dick drawings”, I could not help but feel pity for her.

The film’s style for the most part is low-key and subtle: Touko’s liaisons are treated over-cautiously and even the scenes of gay life in California tend towards the tasteful side. The only exposed male genitalia are those of Touko’s drawings: even the fantasy figure Kake who sometimes appears in Touko’s dreams is always covered up. On the whole, the film is enjoyable to watch as a work of historical drama fiction portraying an individual and a subculture navigating their way through mainstream society’s limitations and testing its boundaries over the years.

The film provides no explanation as to why Touko was drawn to sketching and illustrating pictures of gay male beefcake types in working class fashions, or how and why motorcycles and the biker leather fashions that grew up around them after World War II should have become associated with gay subcultures.

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