Aki Kaurismaki, most probably the best known figure in Finnish cinema, returns with the second film in his ‘immigration trilogy’ six years after the brilliant Le Havre. The Other Side of Hope functions as both an exemplar and an introductory piece of sorts to his signature deadpan style which still remains as inimitable as ever.
Arriving on the shores of Helsinki, Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) seeks asylum at the Finnish authorities, where we learn his sister has been lost on the hellacious journey through Europe. Meanwhile, businessman Wilkstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), leaving his wedding ring in his wife’s ashtray, decides to quit his trade selling shirts. Winning money on the cards, he uses the cash to buy bottom-tier diner The Golden Pint, inheriting with it three eccentric staff members. The stories of the two intertwine when Wilkstrom finds Khaled in the dumpster outside The Golden Pint. He’s been beaten by a gang of racist thugs shortly after learning that his citizenship appeal would not be accepted and that he’d be forced back to Syria. Wilkstrom offers him a job and a fake visa, and a very unlikely relationship ensues.
Kaurismaki won Best Director at this year’s Berlinale for The Other Side of Hope and it’s not difficult to see why. The film contains a deep humanist truth concealed within its absurdist elements and wry composition, a style so distinctively Kaurismakian to which laconism lends itself with equal touches of humour and empathy. Soundtracked by Finnish folk and unfolding through long takes with a humdrum rhythm, the film gives ample space to both Wilkstrom and Khaled’s stories, marking them out two very different paths that share the same overall goal of contentedness. Wilkstrom’s actions belie the stony expression that he carries with him throughout the large majority of the film. It is the affirmations made by what he does that express a basic humility, and its representation is fixed within the director’s style. Unflashy, shot with a spareness and deliberation which has a dryness that highlights precisely this need for basic compassion. Its contrast to how seemingly dispassionate Wilkstrom is as he paces through life grounds the need for a sort of decency that, left unexplained and presented so unglamorously, becomes so much more powerful.
This film premiered in Berlin around the same time as Donald Trump announced his notorious travel ban that prompted outcry from all corners of the globe. Whilst I think it is probably wrong to read The Other Side of Hope as a plea to its audience, it does contain a message that marks it out from the fare of politically oriented cinema that has become more frequent on festival circuits. The main reason for this is because Kaurismaki is not like any other filmmaker out there. It is difficult to talk of his work in terms of hyperbole when its genius is so elusive… This is the film you didn’t know you needed.