CPH:DOX review: Lost Boys (Joonas Neuvonen)

‘Heart of Darkness’ reads the sign above a Southeast Asian club, evoking James Conrad’s classic novella that inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s equally classic Apocalypse Now. That story, so vividly depicting a descent into madness, resonates in Joonas Neuvonen and Sadri Cetinkaya’s documentary Lost Boys, a film that redefines the term ‘bad trip’ forever. A lot can be said about the ethics of the film, but Lost Boys‘ unflinching, sensationalist, and deeply disturbing maelstrom pulling under its protagonists is sure to make an impression viewers will find hard to shake. Part Fear and Loathing in Cambodia, part Jonas Akerlund’s music video for The Prodigy’s Smack My Bitch Up (the x-rated version, to be clear), Lost Boys is both repelling in that “I wish I never saw that” way, and morbidly fascinating in that “watching people destroy themselves” way.

Lost Boys is a follow-up of sorts to Neuvonen’s Reindeerspotting – Escape from Santaland, essentially a real-life version of the Danny Boyle film it so blatantly references in its title. Reindeerspotting depicts the drug scene of Rovaniemi, Finland, centering on Jani, an unemployed addict and drug dealer who is in and out of jail if he is not roaming around Europe after a successful grocery store robbery. Jani’s release from prison, alongside his friend and partner in crime Antti, coincided with Reindeerspotting being a major success at the 2010 Locarno festival where it won the top prize in the Critics Week section. To celebrate, Neuvonen and his two friends travelled to Thailand and Cambodia, embarking on a weeks-long bender of drugs, alcohol and sex. This makes for the kind of holiday footage you don’t want to show your mom (or anybody, really), but it kicks off Neuvonen’s descent into hell that is Lost Boys. When he flies home to Finland, Jani and Antti stay behind, and soon disappear without a trace. Weeks later Jani turns up dead in Phnom Penh. According to local police it was a suicide, but Neuvonen is not convinced and travels back to map out Jani’s final weeks, taking his camera through the dimly lit back alleys and slums of Cambodia’s capital to find the truth behind his friend’s death.

Neuvonen essentially makes himself the protagonist of the film once the murder mystery becomes the focal point. This is where questions arise about Neuvonen’s motivations to make this film and document his sleuthing through strip bars and dingy guesthouses in search of LeeLee, ostensibly Jani’s ‘girlfriend’ who may or may not have been using him to get her own fix. Is it guilt, unscrupulous exploitation of his friend’s death, or an honest attempt to get a picture of the circumstances surrounding Jani’s death? Whatever the reasons behind it, Lost Boys‘ mixture of up-close drug use, graphic sex, and encounters you feel can go wrong at the drop of a dime makes for a seedy yet intoxicating ride through Southeast Asia’s dark underbelly. The film’s smoky, ‘undercover camera’ aesthetic is thrilling enough to infuse guilt into the viewer for actually enjoying Neuvonen’s journey a bit too much, which is helped by blatantly pretentious ruminations by Pekka Strang (Tom of Finland) channeling Neuvonen’s feelings. “At dusk, the borders between the reality and the underworld dissolve, and the smoke of hell money enters the realm of restless spirits,” proclaims Strang in solemn voice-over, the clearly scripted nature of such lines clashing uncomfortably with the desolate hellscapes Neuvonen documents. At times these hit a poignant note, as when Neuvonen’s alter ego remarks that Cambodia’s “past of incomprehensible violence sends its echo to the present.” Lines like these make for a strange and utterly singular amalgamation of the sordid and the lofty, of exploitation and hard-hitting reportage, which makes Lost Boys a unique but tough watch.

Art imitating life and art actually being life finally come together at the end of Lost Boys as Neuvonen is arrested at the Helsinki airport for drug trafficking. Two years later he would be sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for running a drug smuggling operation, a sentence that would seriously delay the Lost Boys project. Early in the film Neuvonen emphatically refuses to do drugs with his friends, throwing up an air of impartiality and distance to his subjects. But given this aftermath the honesty of that decision and what we see or do not see is thrown into doubt. Lost Boys raises more questions than it answers as Neuvonen’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery. This mystique gives the film a strong allure, even if the bleak imagery is a tough hurdle to overcome, but Lost Boys‘ intensity makes it a compelling watch for those who have the stomach for it.