The word “relevant” is ascribed as a badge of honor to far too many contemporary, praise-seeking fictional films that only fleetingly nod toward today’s globo-political climate, whether it be the thuggish strong-arming of white nationalists or the ongoing ordeal of Syrian refugees. To be sure, there’s an inherent if disproportionate urgency to even the simplest, smallest, or most self-serious narrative depictions of these troublesome times. But, to my mind, there has yet to be a recent piece of politically-attuned cinema that can be remotely described as “feel-good,” a descriptor that perhaps no filmmaker wading through the morass of our era should ever aspire to achieve—or, at least, so I thought. The arrival of Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, which tackles both of the aforementioned modern crises through a two-track story of tender and atypical buoyancy, might force us to reconsider the tonal, thematic, and experiential possibilities of narrativizing the immediate world around us.
The Finnish auteur’s latest comedy, the Best Director winner at this year’s Berlinale, charts the interwoven experiences of two men from drastically different backgrounds, each looking to improve their lots in life. One night, an aging traveling shirt salesman named Wikström—played with a hilariously unblinking bulldog glare by recurring Kaurismäki collaborator Sakari Kuosmanen—packs up his wares and walks out on his binge-drinking wife (Kaija Pakarinen) to gamble his meager fortune on a high-risk poker tournament. While driving away from his apartment complex, Wilkström nearly runs down a soot-covered man. This is Khaled (first-time actor Sherwan Haji), a wandering, newly-arrived refugee from Aleppo who, in the film’s opening moments, is seen emerging from a pile of coal on a ship docked in Helsinki, the city where he plans to seek refuge. The two lock eyes for one fated, transitory moment, signaling to the audience—if not to one another—that this perplexing run-in will certainly not be the pair’s final encounter.
The Other Side of Hope proceeds to follow its protagonists on their separate paths. Wikström nets a sizable fortune from his poker gambit and acquires a flagging restaurant that is absurdly understaffed by a trio of workers that includes a befuddled cook (Janne Hyytiäinen), a sly waitress (Nuppu Koivu), and a bumbling maitre’d (Ilkka Koivula). Khaled, meanwhile, is confined to a grim detention center, his access to the outside world generally limited to individual assessments with a designated, coldly diligent immigration officer and the views from the city bus that transports him there.
Although we come to understand the basic backgrounds of Wikström and Khaled in their first few scenes, Kaurismäki initially withholds the former’s overall endgame and the latter’s disturbing, not-so-distant history in his besieged home country. Kaurismäki confidently ladles out important character details and key revelations at his own pace, knowing full well that each man’s present circumstances are gripping enough to draw us close and keep us there, even if we possess only the vaguest sketches of their lived experiences prior to Wikström’s walkout and Khaled’s arrival abroad. What keeps us engaged and invested are the dissimilar forms of comedic interplay that define Wikström and Khaled’s respective ways of inhabiting the world, from the former’s laughable terseness to the latter’s sweet, scheming dialogues with fellow detainee Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), who strikes up a fast friendship of brotherly camaraderie with Khaled.
Kaurismäki originally maintains an emotional distance from Wikström, whose deeper desires are never entirely spelled out for us beyond the broad yet effective indication of middle-aged malaise, although this divide will be subtly, stirringly bridged in time. But Kaurismäki, ever the compassionate humanist, cannot allow such distance from Khaled for very long. The anguished particulars of the émigré’s escape from the war-torn inferno of Aleppo come harrowingly into focus in a remarkable, tonally-discordant mid-film monologue, delivered by Khaled during a tense session with that austere asylum official. This scene is a major showcase for Haji, who pushes his way through an intimidating text with a calm and compelling coherence that ever so slightly masks his character’s deep and unfathomable reckoning with witnessed horrors that can never be left behind. It’s also an unmistakable declaration from Kaurismäki that The Other Side of Hope will not just mine an ongoing crisis for gentle, poker-faced satire—however skillfully this kind of comedy is achieved and sustained—but will also convey the full trauma and unfaltering burden of the many, many Syrians who have been left devastated and displaced in recent years. This is perhaps a more difficult assignment for Kaurismäki to mount, but the sheer clarity and commitment of the writer-director’s intent, coupled with the humbling conviction evinced by Haji in the final execution, packs an altogether sobering punch.
The Other Side of Hope may be one of Kaurismäki’s more politically-pointed pieces but the filmmaker’s views have never been entirely absent from his wide-ranging body of work. Even a tiny character portrait like Kaurismäki’s devilishly funny The Match Factory Girl (1990), in which a young, female factory worker (the great Kati Outinen, who pops up in Other Side for a wry, slender scene as a dour clothing proprietor) is inspired to take homicidal revenge after being used and abused by employers, parents, and lovers alike, can be read as a political-made-personal fable about a coldly unfeeling society that wears women down into industrial, filial, and domestic cogs. (In the same film, Kaurismäki swiftly depicts our heroine’s parents as soulless zombies by showing them taking in news reports about the Tiananmen Square protests and other global calamities in a glazy-eyed stupor.) The Other Side of Hope continues this throughline while keeping its finger firmly on the pulse of the calamitous conditions around us, extending and expanding upon Kaurismäki’s interest in the plight of the refugee that began with the Gabonese child (Blondin Miguel) who faces threat of deportation in the earlier Le Havre.
Kaurismäki’s choice to evenly divide his latest film’s time between a grief-stricken Syrian exile searching for some new semblance of home and a well-to-do white man recklessly looking for little more than financial gain might strike some as a curious one, but the juxtaposition of the two storylines is striking unto itself. At its very essence, The Other Side of Hope is a parable of two men seeking more advantageous lives in a society with the compassion to aid only one of them. As a result, one remains mercilessly stuck in place because the color of his skin and origin of birth breed distrust, no matter the suffering he has endured; the other, while obviously fallible, is allowed to move and advance freely because his life is his own and always will be, as permitted by his fundamental whiteness. Kaurismäki doesn’t stress this irony or ever translate his abhorrence of discrimination, in all its nefarious forms, into anything as blunt as words. He doesn’t need to; these are intrinsic elements entirely irremovable from the narrative itself, glaring at us from the screen like the stares of its two protagonists during that chance first encounter.
Khaled and Wikström are eventually reunited after the former is denied asylum and breaks out of the refugee center, ultimately finding off-the-books employment in the latter’s restaurant, which keeps rebranding and revising its international cuisine. This identity crisis leads to what is indubitably cinema’s most hysterically revolting sushi-making tutorial, which, like many of the scenes set in this eatery, is made all the more humorous by an ensemble whose every member understands the film’s tricksy tone and steadfastly commits to playing each scene with sober, bone-dry stoniness. These actors manage to retrieve and retain our laughs precisely because they refuse to beg for them, playing down their reaction shots with minimalist gestures—slightly-raised eyebrows and hard gazes that dart a second too late for comfort.
Similarly, Kaurismäki remains a masterfully subtle visualist whose frames pop even in the most normal or neutral settings, from anodyne waiting rooms to anonymous parking garages. Working with longtime cinematographer Timo Salminen, who endows The Other Side of Hope with a pulpy, comic book sheen comprised of sharp primary colors and boldly affected overlighting, Kaurismäki can craft shots just as precise and deliberately-appointed as those of auteurs with more famously lauded eyes. (An unexplained, prominently-placed Jimi Hendrix poster that hangs in the otherwise unfurnished dining room of Wikström’s restaurant may go down as this year’s most fascinatingly inspired production design detail.) Kaurismäki’s ensemble isn’t extensive, but his carefully-arranged blocking lends these proceedings a dollhouse feel, a sense of play that keeps the pace fleet and the tone spry even as the script skirts down ever more dangerous alleys within this specific societal state.
The film’s darkest material arrives in the forms of three thuggish, lurking neo-Nazis who identify as members of an organization called “the Liberation Army of Finland” and appear sporadically throughout the film to torment Khaled with increasing brutality. This is Kaurismäki’s nerviest dramatic decision, but it’s also one of his slightest gestures; these nationalists represent little more than convenient antagonists, when the recent spike in extreme-right radicalism in the West—and in Europe, in particular—surely requires a slightly more trenchant reckoning.
Nevertheless, Kaurismäki has earned enough of our general goodwill throughout every other stretch of The Other Side of Hope, which in its finest moments achieves something like the comedic, bittersweet humanism of Renoir’s political masterpieces. Kaurismäki may be a comparably dryer, more unsentimental raconteur but all the deadpan in the world cannot mask the rich and expansive compassion that radiates from the round edges of his film. The Other Side of Hope manages to quietly humble with the knowledge that Kaurismäki’s understatedly emotional response to the world’s struggles has also allowed this filmmaker to realize his full cinematic artistry.