‘Sisu’ Helmer Jalmari Helander Shakes Up Genre With Toronto Festival Midnight Madness Thriller

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Finnish director Jalmari Helander aims to show TIFF audiences a new kind of action film. For the director behind “Big Game” and “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale,” his new film, “Sisu,” takes action to the next level, placing a Rambo-like character in the bitter wilderness of Finland during World War II.

“I’ve always loved action films,” Helander says. “When I saw ‘First Blood’ for the first time when I was a kid, that’s one of the biggest influences I have ever had. Of course, I live in Finland. And Finland is a place where you don’t make an action film because we have something like 5 million people, and it’s really difficult to get money to be able to do an action film. So that’s been a big dream of mine. And now I was in a place that I actually could do it.”

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Set in 1945, “Sisu” follows a Finnish ex-soldier named Aatami Korpi, played by Jorma Tommila. After Aatami discovers gold deep in Finland’s wilderness, he must venture into the city to cash in his treasure. Things take a bloody turn for the worst, though, when a group of Nazis becomes intent on killing the man and taking his gold.

The film, which can be described as a combination between “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “John Wick,” features little dialogue yet intense action. From hurling landmines, underwater throat slits and a man intentionally lighting himself on fire, “Sisu” isn’t afraid of being outrageous. Its simple plot and short runtime of around 90 minutes allowed Helander to creatively dash out kill after kill of blood-pumping spectacle. For the director, visual storytelling is at the core of his film.

“I love nice pictures, and I always think everything is picture first because we are making a movie, not an audio book or something,” Helander explains. “There are quite a lot of scenes where I had to show what Aatami was thinking. For example, I just watched something where this girl is left alone [in the wilderness]. And she’s always speaking alone, like, ‘OK, well what I’m gonna do now is I have to get to the town. I need to make a fire. I need to find some water.’ To me, it’s so stupid to explain something like that because you can just show it.”

“Sisu” was shot in the expansive yet unforgiving region of Lapland, Finland’s northernmost region. The desolate and chilling wilderness was key to not only the film, but also to Helander’s filmmaking process.

“I still miss the shoot,” Helander says. “It was difficult of course, but also really rewarding. I really loved to take the whole crew somewhere where we all stuck together in this really remote place. But it was difficult. It was so windy. It looks so warm in the movie, but it was so fucking cold. And so windy. It was so windy that actually the helmets of the Nazi soldiers would fly off.”

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