February 28, 2019
Cold Fever – Iceland,1996
Looking at Iceland on the map, it is impossible not to notice its isolation. Uniquely positioned between Europe and Greenland, its freezing temperature and harsh conditions likely made it a temporary stop for nomads on their way to warmer, greener, less punishing lands. There are a few reasons why writers might set a narrative is such a country. It goes without saying that one on them is that the writer indeed intends for the story to be set in that particular place, and therefore goes out of his way to depict that place and its people as authentically as possible. Another possibility is that the writer means for the location to stand for an extreme, for example, lawlessness, immorality, or undying romance. I suspect that the latter explains why writers Jim Stark and Fridrik Thor Fridrikson, who also directed the film, set Cold Fever in Iceland.
Having never been to the country myself, I have no way of knowing if anything we see in Cold Fever is based on reality. I suspect that a lot of it is, yet there are also moments that seem as if they are taking place in a fairy tale or 1970s gangster film. On the surface, the film is a straightforward story about a man seeking to do one last good deed for his deceased parents. On another, it is a journey into a fantasy world like Neverland or Oz, one where oddness reigns supreme and exact explanations may be hard to come by.
The film’s central character is Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase), a Japanese businessman with plans to play tons of golf while vacationing in Hawaii. I like the way the film establishes the monotony of Hirata’s daily life and the pressure he gets at his job. It is also strongly hinted that Hirata’s interest in golf is pragmatic, a hobby picked up as a means of impressing his golf-obsessed boss. Early on, we learn that it is also the seventh anniversary of the death of Hirata’s parents, and, more importantly, that a particular ceremony must be performed near the spot of their deaths if they are going to rest in peace. Hirata insists he won’t change his plans, but soon there he is on a plane to Iceland. The woman sitting next to him on the plane assures him, “You’re going to love it. Everybody does.” Rarely do sentiments such as these signal a series of happy events, at least not initially.
What follows are a series of often entertaining encounters, many of which Hirata does not fully understand, and as a result of this, we don’t either. For example, early on Hirata finds himself waiting in a cab for the driver to return after declaring that he had to make a pit stop. However, after entering the building the driver went into, Hirata is astonished to find him surrounded by a crowd of people in the middle of what appears to be a religious ceremony. Some films would follow such a scene up with an explanation, one from which the listener – and, by extension, the audience – would learn something valuable about the local culture. Here, Hirata just unloads his suitcase and walks the rest of the way to Reykjavik.
Hirata also meets a number of eclectic characters. Among others, there is a funeral collector, a woman who accosts Hirata at a bar and informs him that they have a psychic connection, and two American hitchhikers who have a rather peculiar way of communicating when they have disagreements. Not all of these characters impact Hirata’s journey directly, yet cumulatively, they craft Iceland into a land that attracts oddities and is populated by some of the most jovial and musical residents you’re likely ever to see in a live-action film.
As Hirata’s surreal, often humorous journey reaches its conclusion, it begins to resemble one of those ancient Greek plays in which a journey is a metaphor for a descent into a far lonelier state of being. Sure, Hirata may be surrounded by people throughout the film, but the last leg must be completed alone. And this is as it should be. Hirata’s journey is ultimately a personal one, and it is fitting that his final act is committed in isolation after having successfully completed one final trial. In this, the film bears some resemblance to Greek tragedy. However, it should be noted that Homer’s heroes never encountered anything like the Headquarters of Icelandic Cowboys or drank a national drink called Black Death.
I half expected the film to end with Hirata running into some of the people he met earlier in the film, but the film is smarter than that. Life rarely gives us two coincidences involving the same stranger, so instead the film ends with an image that viewers conversant in film symbolism will recognize instantly. I won’t reveal what it is, but it made me see the film in a new way. Sure, there are elements that will remind viewers of the films of Jim Jarmusch or recent films like Francis Ha and A Coffee in Berlin, yet the final image made me think of classic westerns, and I was reminded how many of them have plots similar to that of Cold Fever.
Cold Fever includes some incredibly impressive visuals, many of which help us understand just what Hirata is up against. We see weather conditions so severe that we can scarcely see very far in front of us. In other moments, we get a good sense of how wide and imposing the snow-covered terrain is. In fact if I had walked in on a few of these scenes, I would have thought the film was set on an alien world, and that the film was about a man battling the elements to survive. One of my favorite moments comes when Hirata drives past a waterfall flowing through a frozen mountain. I was truly awed.
I have written about Cold Fever before. It is a film I first learned of from an episode of Siskel & Ebert, and I’d been looking for it ever since. In one of my Musings on Movies, I wrote about my futile attempts to find it at a store I knew only sold copied films. Fortunately, the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK; regrettably, all versions, including the VHS release in the US, appear to be out of print. It is depressing when great films disappear, but such are the times we live in. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region B/2; now out of print)
3 and a half stars
*Cold Fever is in Japanese, English, and Icelandic.