Through four decades of filmmaking, Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki has forged an idiosyncratic path. His instantly recognizable work brings droll humor and warm compassion to melancholic tales of the dead beat or down on their luck. His mopey characters favor abrupt, deadpan dialogue and he matches this to a similar style of cinematography, utilizing largely static frames with little by way of camera flourish. This formal style well suits the chief concern of his recent films, as with first Le Havre (2011), and now The Other Side of Hope (2016), he takes up the plight of the undocumented immigrant, an existence fraught with alienation and where communication requires that native languages are set aside.
The Other Side of Hope begins with the parallel stories of two proverbial fish out of water. We first encounter Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian refugee who has lost most his family in a bombing in Aleppo. He emerges blackened from a load of coal in one of the container ships in the Helsinki port, and puts his faith in the system, immediately applying for asylum and being transferred to an immigration holding center. Elsewhere, middle aged salesman Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), kind hearted behind his stern exterior, sets about restructuring his life. He leaves his wife and job to pursue his dreams as a restauranteur. The dowdy establishment that he purchases – the site of much of the film’s comedy – is a poor prospect by every measure, from its name (The Golden Pint), to its location (“lots of wealthy students”), to its dissatisfied staff and menu (sardines served fresh in their tin).
The gap between the deliberate, stylized world that Kaurismäki creates and our own reality makes the inclusion of an actual news bulletin on the atrocities ravaging Aleppo all the more jarring. The report underlines Khaled’s harrowing account of his family’s fate and renders even more callous the authority’s decision that he does not require asylum. Khaled escapes into the city before he can be deported, and before long he is discovered amongst the garbage bins of the kindly Waldemar.
Kaurismäki places Khaled’s plight within the context of an ongoing cross-fertilization of cultures that enrich his new country even as his adversaries, the cold-hearted immigration officers and the fascist goons that lurk in the darkness, seek to refuse it. The oud plucked in the holding center’s dormitory resembles the guitar played on the stage of a local venue, where the Finnish musicians play a variation of American rock and roll. After the failing restaurant is hastily reinvented as a sushi joint, the chef has to resort to using salted herring as a key ingredient. The Japanese patrons leave without complaint.
While Le Havre was a sweet sunny affair in which a working class community comes together to help a young African boy evade the local police inspector and reunite with his mother, The Other Side Of Hope is altogether darker in tone. In part this is a result of palette, with much of the action occurring at night, or in parking garages, underpasses, and ill lit interiors. There is also the deadly threat posed by Khaled’s antagonizers, both fascists and immigration officers, who appear not dissimilar beneath the bulk of their uniforms. But one of this film’s great appeals lies in Kaurismäki’s resounding faith in humanity. Whilst those wielding power may do so with callousness and cruelty, the lower ranks of society – the asylum seekers, waiters, barmen, even people smugglers – are ready to act with kindness. For the good souls of Kaurismäki’s films, solace is so often to be found in the simplest things: good music, a plate of food and a pint of beer, or the attentions of a friendly dog. Ultimately, his world really isn’t so different to our own.