Don’t wound what you can’t kill – Beyond Bollywood
Actor-director Jalmari Helander’s action film is brutal but brilliant.
Rating: 4 / 5
By Mayur Lookhar
A knife is pierced into a Nazi soldier’s head. A pretty young scribe sitting next to this reviewer is shaken. Almost simultaneously a couple of voices up front cheer the brutal scene. Welcome to a polarized world where bloodshed can evoke mixed reactions. You are either in, or you’re out of SISU . However, despite its brutality, what’s likely to keep most audiences hanging is the film’s legend.
Bollywood, South cinema has its own definition of larger-than-life. Truth be told, we’re not really fans of it. So, desi or videsi, we got to be consistent in our judgment. Writer, actor and director Jalmari Helander’s SISU has its fair share of over-the-top action. It’s brutal to the bone. We criticize our desi action heroes in their one-man-army avatars. So, why should it be any different for Hollywood action films? Helander’s Aatami Korpi though isn’t your typical action hero.
The black (dyed) hair, long white beard, average body makes him an antithesis to the Rambos, John Wicks, Ethan Hunts of the world. Jeez, give him a nice bath, fine robe and you’d see Jesus in him. Korpi [Helander] isn’t Jesus, but then who is this man feared by the Nazis and the Russians during World II in Lapland, Finland?
Finnish culture describes such a person as a Sisu. The film attributes no clear meaning to the word, but the closest definition would be someone enduring so much pain, that the body is now immune to it. Korpi’s no larger-than-life character. His legend lies in simply being indestructible. You don’t wound something that you can’t kill. 300 Russians paid the price earlier. The surviving lot gave him the name of Kochei [The Immortal]. Now Nazi men, SS Obersturmführer Bruno Helldorf [Aksel Hennie] and his subordinate Wolf [Jack Doolan] do the cardinal sin of underestimating this Koschei.
Korpi’s living alone in deserted Lapland fields where he digs some gold. In their bid to stop the Russians, the Nazis have destroyed roads, mined most fields. Korpi’s gold is no value if he can’t make it to the bank that is hundreds of miles away. Though he’s given up on war, but the road to Helsinki is not without battling the evil Bruno and his troops. The Nazis have also held captive local Finnish women and are abusing them.
Korpi’s state of mind can be gauged from how he simply ignores the roaring Nazi aircrafts flying over his head. The war no longer means anything to him. He is an outcast living alone in a tent at the riverside. The only living thing beside him is a fuzzy dog. The pooch doesn’t bite but like Koschei, he, too, possesses the fighting spirit. In some way, their fate is tied by destiny.
Helander cops certain Bollywood-style criticism. The opening action scene lacks the requisite agility. What’s constant though is the intensity in this man’s eyes. You don’t want to look him in the face. Here’s a man whose body carries scars – both external and internal. It’s best to leave him alone. Despite some over-the-top action what keeps you hooked to Sisu is the gripping drama and the intense acts by all its cast. Yes, it’s very Tarantino, Coen brothers or John Wick-like. In fact, Helander cited World War II Finnish sniper Simo Hayha and cult film First Blood  as his inspirations. It’s the Finnish legend that draws one to Sisu.
Once you buy into the Kochei legend, you are drawn to Korpi, not afraid to cheer for him. Trust the desi masses to blow the whistles. The man barely talks. In fact, save for the bloody cries, he doesn’t utter a single word till the final scene. Helander imbibes the Koschei spirit all the way.
Bruno, the antagonist is cocky. Hennie matches Helander’s intensity. Though ruthless, selfish, it’s Hennie’s talent that makes you respect the artiste for the evil portrayal. The Koschei versus Bruno battle has a WWE [World Wrestling Federation] feel about it. There’s great drama, hype around the finale action. Come the hour, you are left to say, ‘This is AWESOME”. The image of Bruno busting Koschei’s face and screaming ‘Why don’t you just die?” is the stuff for action film aficionados. In WWE parlance, Kochei is like The Undertaker, while Bruno can be the bad Stone-Cold Steve Austin.
In a film all about bloodshed, the captive women eventually find their strength. You just can’t take your eyes off Mimosa Willamo. The Finnish actress plays Aino, the captive who braves to laugh at the Nazis in their face.
We’ve seen plenty of Koschei-like characters, but it is the Finnish touch that makes Helander’s film appealing. It is backed by effective production design, deft cinematography and gripping background score. The brutality could have been curtailed a bit. This one clearly is not one for the faint hearted. Beyond the thrill of a noir, SISU is perhaps another Western/European film that carries the subtle cultural warfare message. It’s pertinent to note that this film comes at a time when the Russians have invaded Ukraine and a fearful Finland finally joining NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization].
Leave the polity aside, the neutral Indians are likely to cheer Helander’s SISU.
The film is set to be released in India on 28 April.
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