on April 05, 2002 by Wade Major
Excepting the offbeat films of Mika and Aki Kaurismaki, Finnish movies have never really had an easy time getting distribution in the U.S., leaving American art-house patrons deprived of seeing some of Europe's most invigorating cinema. Those who do have the chance to see the 1999 Finnish war film "Ambush," however, should make every effort to do so, for it not only details a criminally overlooked part of history, but underscores key differences between American and European attitudes toward armed conflict.

Despite the common view that World War II was primarily a fight against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, the truth is far more complicated. A host of sidebar conflicts also contributed to what was less a single global war than a series of overlapping wars that included the Spanish Civil War and the so-called Winter War between Finland and Russia. "Ambush," adapted from the Antti Tuuri novel, is not the first film to address the Winter War and its aftermath--Pekka Parikka's monumental 1989 epic "Talvisota" (Finnish for "Winter War") is generally considered the definitive treatment of the subject, a grueling three-hour slog through events surrounding Russia's attempted invasion and annexation of Finnish territory in November, 1939 (barely two months after Germany's invasion of Poland). In "Ambush," the devastating days of the Winter War, when the relatively tiny Finnish army braved artic weather conditions to repel a Russian force many times their size, have past. It is now 1941 and more conventional tactics have been adopted in view of the relatively hospitable weather.

A passionate young Lieutenant, Eero Perkola (Peter Franzen), is assigned to lead a reconnaissance team past the border and into Russian territory to assess the strength of forces on the other side. Before leaving, he entrusts the care of his fiancée Kaarina Vainikaine (Irina Bjorklund) to his superiors, who promise to see her to safety. But partway into the mission, Perkola receives word that Irina has perished in a Russian ambush, news that coarsens his demeanor and hardens his resolve to exact justice on his own terms.

Though "Ambush" is nowhere near the scale or impact of "Talvisota," which still ranks among the most impressive war pictures of all time, it does manage to evoke a certain combat psychology that "Talvisota" did not address, an austere desperation that stands in marked contrast to the approach typically seen in similarly-themed American movies like "Platoon" or "Saving Private Ryan." For Finland fell into neither the Axis nor the Allied camps--perhaps the one participant in all of World War II who fought alone and unallied for their own survival. That quiet sense of aloneness flows through every beautifully photographed frame of "Ambush" and fills the fierce and melancholic gazes of its superb cast. The burden of pride, solitude, abandonment and lingering, diminishing hope weigh heavily upon all, and under the able direction Olli Saarela the audience is made to feel it as well.

What audiences will not get is closure or resolution--even six decades after the fact, Finns struggle with the events of those years, wounds remaining open oftentimes of their own choosing. For Americans accustomed to putting their mistakes behind them and simply moving on, that may be easier to watch than to accept or even understand. Starring Peter Franzen, Irina Bjorklund, Kari Heiskanen, Taisto Reimaluoto and Kari Vaanen. Directed by Olli Saarelan. Written by Antti Tuuri and Olli Saarela. Produced by Marko Rohr and Ilkka Y.K. Matila. A FilmKitchen release. War drama. Finnish-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 117 min.

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