My history with Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki is spotty. Though he’s largely viewed as a critics’ darling, his work makes me run hot or cold. The enforced wacky/deadpan tone of early works like Leningrad Cowboys Go America turned me off, and while a lot of people liked his last feature, Le Havre, I pretty much hated it. So why does he get to me sometimes, with works like The Man Without A Past, The Match Factory Girl and La Vie de Bohème? I can’t explain it, but he hits my sweet spot again with The Other Side of Hope.
Here is a movie that really shouldn’t work. Kaurismäki deploys his deadpan on a subject that cries out for delicacy and empathy: the global crisis of immigrants fleeing to Europe (or trying to) from war-torn Syria and Iraq. It really seems to be exactly the wrong target for his stylized drollery. But it turns out to be a good fit.
We first encounter Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) emerging like some primal bogeyman from a mound of coal slag in the belly of a cargo ship. The ship has come to port in Helsinki, and — after taking a shower at the local train station — Khaled dutifully reports to the local police headquarters and tells them he’s seeking asylum.
Meanwhile, the film has us following another lone figure. We first see the middle-aged Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) depositing his house keys and wedding ring on a table where his wife, hair in curlers, sits grimly smoking. He walks out. She drops his ring in the ashtray.
A shirt salesman wanting to move into a new business, Wikström briefly visits a clothing store owner (Kati Outinen), and over coffee they share dreams of retirement. (The scene presumably exists simply to give Outinen, a longtime Kaurismäki stalwart, a moment onscreen, rhapsodizing over moving to Mexico and dancing the hula.)
For half its running time, The Other Side of Hope vacillates between Wikström’s storyline and Khaled’s. Wikström enters a high-stakes poker game to earn money to open a restaurant, while Khaled befriends an Iraqi named Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon) at the refugee center where both are waiting to see if their plea for asylum will be granted.
In outline, this sounds like a straightforward, politically driven drama. But in Kaurismäki’s comically bleak cinematic world, no one ever cracks a smile or expresses what we would recognize as traditional human emotion. In some of his work this has come across as woeful, Euro-hipster attitude. But here, when Khaled is interviewed by immigration agents and coolly recalls the bombing and deaths that forced him to leave his homeland, there’s something absolutely right about his uninflected delivery. Emotion might detract from the awful facts.
Like other Kaurismäki films, The Other Side of Hope is a fable about down-on-their-luck folks. In its last act, Khaled and Wikström’s paths finally cross at the latter’s restaurant, the Golden Pint, a deeply depressing joint that gets even worse when Wikström and his three eccentric employees try to boost business by changing the place’s menu and profile. (Nowhere have you seen such sad, disgusting sushi.)
Kaurismäki revels in the gray climate of Helsinki and its joyless urban lines. But, as in other films, he peppers the movie with musical interludes by street musicians playing blues on guitar and harmonica — a nice contrast with the filmmaker’s somber palette. Who knows, maybe the next of his movies I’ll dislike as much as some of his earlier ones. Or maybe I’m just getting onto Kaurismäki’s wavelength of playful despair.
When he’s interviewed by an immigration agent, who asks him whether he’s male or female, Khaled replies, “I don’t understand humor.” In the wry, morose cosmos depicted in The Other Side of Hope, his words are paradoxically hilarious.
The Other Side of Hope. With Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen. Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. In Finnish, English, Arabic and Swedish, with subtitles. Unrated. 100 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.