REVIEW: Sisu (2023)

A Film By Jalmari Helander

As an avid fan of historical films, I was eagerly anticipating the release of Sisu a few weeks ago. A co-production of American and Finnish film companies, Sisu is a genre-bending film that blends the gritty action of George Miller’s “Mad Max” with the stylized violence of a Quentin Tarantino flick, all while drawing on the story beats of the now iconic John Wick franchise. Despite the heavy promotion of the film as a “historical John Wick” of sorts, Sisu stands on its own and exceeded my expectations in every way possible, offering a fresh take on war films. While the film had a limited release, I had the pleasure of finding a nearby theater showing it – a rarity for limited releases around here in the past. Films with small theater runs used to usually require long drives to see right here in the middle of the country, but as I have gushed about on many reviews this year, times are changing. Just as an aside, I can’t hype Fathom Events enough as of late, as they have excelled at bringing unique films to the big screen in far more areas than just coastal cities. This, however, was surprisingly not one of their releases, my area was just lucky.

Note: Sisu is entirely in English for those worried about this being subtitled. I have no idea if there are two versions or anything, but it appears that this was designed for a wider release than ay, just Finland.

“Sisu is a unique Finnish concept. It is a Finnish term that can be roughly translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. Sisu is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain that courage. It is a word that cannot be fully translated. When an ex-soldier who discovers gold in the Lapland wilderness tries to take the loot into the city, Nazi soldiers led by a brutal SS officer battle him.”

The setting of Sisu is at the cusp of World War II’s end. Finland has brokered a deal with The USSR to expel the previously cooperating (low-key occupying) German forces from their territory. However, the SS is not keen on being punished for their heinous crimes and will stop at nothing to escape retribution. Finland’s alliance with Nazi Germany during the war was a ideological alliance, but an attempt by Finland to regain territories lost to The USSR during the Winter War of 1939-40. Realizing they had little to gain by chaining themselves to the festering corpse of Nazi aggression, this alliance ultimately led to hostilities when Germany did little to actually help Finland in the long run. The period in question is referred to as “The Lapland War,” a part of history unfamiliar to many outside of WWII enthusiasts. Watching this film actually made me want to do some research and learn more about this time period. I’ve watched stuff about The Winter War, but anything past that is usually glossed over around here so we can talk about D-Day or something.

In the film, Nazis are enacting a scorched earth policy, and brutally targeting rural communities in Finland as retribution. This causes immense destruction and suffering for everyone in the areas affected. Enter a 30-man Wehrmacht platoon led by the merciless SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf and his subordinate, Wolf. They are rampaging through settlements in their retreat, killing every man they see and taking several women captive for pleasure. When they chance upon a weary middle-aged man, Aatami Korpi they assume he is about to die anyway and almost leave him alone (which would have been a good choice). Korpi is making his way to the city to sell a recently excavated gold deposit, which sadly becomes known by the Nazis. Seeing this as an opportunity to escape their fates, the platoon attempts to steal the gold but quickly realizes they have picked the wrong man to mess with.

Aatami Korpi is a seasoned soldier who fought in the Winter War, where he supposedly killed over 300 Soviets after his family was murdered. They don’t really go into the details of this time period, but it is made abundantly clear that he was a one-man death squad and not somebody to take very lightly. He is so notorious that he has earned the nickname “Koschei,” meaning immortal. Rather than walk away, to which Heldorf has many opportunities, he decides to take his frustrations out on Korpi which is his undoing. Aatami Korpi is a fictional character, but is likely based on various people during pretty much any conflict that become legends and propaganda tools. His story most closely resembles that of Simo Häyhä (aka “The White Death”), a Finnish sniper that is credited with a similar “kill count” in the same time period.

While the trailers paint Sisu as some sort of relentless bloodbath, there are actually quite a few somber and introspective moments in the film. Despite almost zero dialogue from Jorma Tommila as Korpi, the viewers get a lot of moments where the weight of the past drags the man down. He is trying to just simply survive after losing literally everything, and just like in any good action film, absolutely terrible people bring him right back in to things he’d rather move away from. The film shows scenes of him suffering PTSD, having war flashbacks, and trying not to forget his family that was ripped from him. This is all conveyed with subtle cues such as Korpi touching a wedding ring, crying, or having trouble sleeping. It would have been easy to hit the audience with an expeditionary sledgehammer at some point, but everything is given time to breathe to allow the audience to process and draw conclusions from what they are seeing. Jorma Tommila did an amazing job here, and Jalmari Helander is a director I will have to keep an eye on from here on out.

That isn’t to say that this film is light on the blood and gore, this is a hard R-rated film afterall. Aatami Korpi kills Nazis with the proficiency of an entire squadron of assassins, and as such the scenes with him relentlessly chasing Bruno Helldorf and his men are exciting and intense. Yes, the movie gets to points where one would consider Korpi’s survival unlikely, but being dubbed “Koschei”, one will surmise that he earned that name for a reason.

Sisu by Jalmari Helander is easily in my top five of films that I’ve seen this year (so far), perhaps only being beat out by Suzume, and animated film a saw earlier in the spring. It has the right mix of action and gorgeous cinematography that really set this apart from similar films. I feel like this film made me learn some tidbits I did not know about Finland during World War II, and if anything can teach me something, I’m immediately a fan. As stated before, I plan to follow the director and actors involved in this the best I can, because everything about this really impressed me. If you let this one pass you by, please do yourself a favor and check this out when it hits Video on Demand.


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