[This review originally appeared as part of my ongoing TIFF coverage at Showcase. Thanks to the Goat-Boy for allowing us to reprint it here.]
Where to even begin with AJ Annila’s Sauna? A film that raises more questions than it answers, that raises more issues than it resolves, Sauna is a major thinkpiece on the nature of sin and guilt and how both can simply swallow you whole. Impeccably crafted – as you’d expect from the director of the visually stunning Jade Warrior – it once again showcases Annila’s tendency to straddle the line between arthouse and straight up genre film, an approach that many in the hardcore horror set will find immensely frustrating but will delight those who prefer their scares to be of the more thoughtful and atmospheric variety.
Set in the 1500’s, a lengthy war between Finland and Russia has just come to a conclusion, a situation that requires new borders to be agreed upon and new maps drawn. And so a joint commission of Finnish and Russian representatives have been sent to lay out new boundaries that both can agree upon. The Russian side is represented by a pair of soldiers and a military diplomat, the Finns by the Spore brothers. Erik, the elder brother, is a Cavalry commander who has spent his entire life fighting the Russians and is poorly suited to anything else. Knut, the younger brother, could not be more different – a scholar who has a posting at a major Swedish university awaiting him at the conclusion of their mission. Assuming, of course, that anybody survives to see the mission to its end …
Erik, you see, is a slave to his temper and to his hatred of all things Russian, a hatred that leads him to kill a man who he suspects of Russian sympathies while Knut, for his part, hides away the man’s daughter – who he not so subtly lusts after – by locking her in a root cellar to keep her safely away from his brother’s anger. He is protecting her, Knut reasons, not that this is any reassurance to the young girl locked away in the dark. Fearing reprisal from the locals the brothers head out of town as quickly as possible, leaving the young girl locked away …<
As the film progresses Knut’s sense of guilt grows, eventually taking on physical shape and form, the point at which Sauna would devolve into a series of jump scares if it were made in Hollywood as opposed to Finland. Anilla, however, takes things in entirely another direction, building the film around the opposing forces of the two brothers, the notion that you carry your sins with you, and a Finnish superstition that believes traditional saunas can be used to literally wash your sins away. The situation builds slowly, inevitably, until it finally reaches the point where retribution arrives not from some external force at all but from the forced recognition of the darkness that lies within each of the principal players.
Sauna flouts the conventions of American horror film making and spends little time explaining some of its more culturally specific quirks. Throw in the fact that Anilla assumes a certain amount of intelligence from his audience and you have a film that requires you to pay close attention and – most importantly – draw your own conclusions as to what is actually happening and why. The stunning final sequence notwithstanding there is not a lot of flash and bang here, Sauna opting instead for something far more subtle. Expect this one to divide audiences but count me firmly on the positive side.