DIR/WRI/PRO: Aki Kaurismäki • DOP: Timo Salminen• ED: Samu Heikkilä • DES: Markku Pätilä • CAST: Ville Virtanen, Kati Outinen, Sakari Kuosmanen
For anyone unfamiliar with Aki Kaurismäki’s films, his unique style can be quite gradual to accommodate to. The Finnish-born director has established himself as an adroit creator of wry, often surreal, humour that can often alienate audiences with intentionally artificial set designs and unusually stiff performances. As a personal first experience with Kaurismäki’s comedy, The Other Side of Hope offers a comfortable introduction to many of the filmmaker’s noted proclivities (if you’re a fan of blues and gritty rock n’ roll, it’s definitely a treat) with an incredibly apt and contemporary subject matter that furthers its accessibility.
The story of two disparate men whose lives cross paths in the unlikeliest of ways, The Other Side of Hope primarily follows Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who crosses into Finnish borders and seeks asylum from the government authorities. Determined to make contact with his lost sister, he spends his days trying to find work and a home in order to preserve his tenure in the country. Simultaneously, an elderly Finnish man named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen – a regular in Kaurismäki’s films) leaves his job following the dismantling of his marriage, which is conveyed in beautifully executed visual storytelling. With the money left from his shares, he gambles it all in a poker game and wins. Deciding to fulfil his dream of running a restaurant, he purchases a bar called The Golden Pint, and soon afterwards finds himself face-to-face with Khaled, giving him money and living quarters while he works at The Golden Pint.
Considering the gravitas of the Syrian refugee as it still unfolds to this day, there’s an immediate difficulty in trying to find the humour in such a grim period of history. Whether it’s due to his unusual style, it seems as though Kaurismäki struggles to uncover it as well, with at least thirty minutes proceeding before the first discernible joke is uttered. While the juxtaposition of Khaled’s and Wikström’s story makes sense thematically, it also makes sense comically as well. Wikström’s portion offers a clearer mode of humour to operate between the unjust treatment of refugees in European society. The tribulation of restaurant servicing is a classic comedic scenario shown here with a Kaurismaki’s twist. Whatever charm The Other Side of Hope has stems from these moments in The Golden Pint, and the excellently choreographed timing of its performers.
However, as the film is primarily about the Syrian refugee crisis, the film stumbles in its attempts to address more serious issues. At its core, and much to the film’s success, is the humanisation of Khaled and his experience living as a refugee which is exhibited without condescension or maudlin sentimentality. Paradoxically, by being artificial, its observations feel more realistic – such as Khaled’s conversation with an experienced Iraqi refugee who remarks that they cannot look depressed in public without the authorities sending them back home or simultaneously look happy without the authorities sending them back home. While these moments are certainly refreshing, they are scarce overall, with the discriminatory behaviour of the bureaucratic system taking the majority of the film’s criticisms and blame.
Then again, this detraction from The Other Side of Hope is mitigated by the cleverly interwoven narratives which deliver some of the more subtle and condemning thoughts on Europe’s belief in equality and humanity. Kaurismäki offers a well-crafted and unique film that looks almost effortless in its delivery throughout every frame. As this is his third time exploring the refugee crisis, it’s difficult to answer whether his latest attempt fairs better than previous entries, but as an introduction to the filmmaker’s unusual craft and style, it’s a highly recommended starting point.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Other Side of Hope is released 26th May 2017