Finland consistently ranks in the upper echelon of the world prosperity rankings (as high as 3rd this year) but you’d never be able to tell that watching the films of Aki Kaurismaki. Melancholy and the plight of the working class have long been the themes of Kaurismaki’s work dating back from his early masterpieces Shadows in Paradise all the way to more recent hits like The Match Factory Girl and beyond. His latest film The Other Side of Hope is no different; here morbid gloom hovers over the lives of Helsinki’s citizens inflicting them with a stoic dejected demeanor. Beneath the bleak surface, however, lies a film that wonderfully melds Kaurismaki’s unique tack for deadpan comedy with a strong political message condemning racism and xenophobia.
Kaurismaki’s aesthetic is an acquired taste. Briefly considered the successor to Bergman for their shared Nordic heritage while also invoking stylistic comparisons to Bresson and the French New Wave, Kaurismaki is a throwback filmmaker for the contemporary age. He paints all of his subjects with a mundane brush – all working class – average joe types and accents that with equally minimalistic set designs. This works to give his films an air of cynicism that often alienates audiences unfamiliar with his style. Dig deeper though and you’ll find the unforgiving world that Kaurismaki depicts is actually a source of great strength.
In the case of The Other Side Of Hope, Khaled (first-time actor Sherwan Haji) and Wikström (Kaurismaki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) are cut from that same Kaurismaki cloth. Khaled is a Syrian refugee who has found his way to Finland by way of a series of horrifying ordeals. Kaurismaki shoots this sequence in a single static take tightly framed around Khaled’s unflinching face as he recounts the horrors of his journey that has seen his entire family and his fiancé lost to a geopolitical conflict they wanted no part of. The pain of the experience is seen in Khaled’s eyes though his face gives nothing away. The state bureaucracy also has nothing to give rejecting his plea for asylum and sending him on the next flight back to the hell from whence he came. Khaled, resilient as ever is not going to let such a minor inconvenience stop him though, facing certain death if he returns to his home country, he tests his faith living illegally on the streets of Helsinki.
Mirroring Khaled’s journey is that of Wikström – a newly divorced salesman turned restaurant owner seeking a new lease on life. Much like Khaled’s journey to Finland, Wilkström’s past is handled in one fell swoop with the man removing his wedding band and walking out the door – no setup, no explanation required. The past is the past, what is infinitely more interesting for Kaurismaki is how we move forward from it. Fortunes can change on a dime as Kaurismaki demonstrates when Wilkström unexpectedly wins large in a high stakes poker game so why dwell on things we cannot change?
When the two lone travelers cross paths in a humorous exchange of fists, both admire one another for their resilience (and ability to take a punch). Though Wikström himself is no position to offer charity, he takes the Syrian in offering him a job at his restaurant and helping him forge documents that allow him to stay. In a twist of ironic fate, Khaled finds the refuge he seeks not from the state that ranks so highly in prosperity but within its margins. An overt statement against the tragic fates of refugees and the bureaucracies that deny them basic living conditions, The Other Side of Hope is Kaurismaki’s most politically charged film to date. Following his previous film Le Havre that explored similar themes of immigration and the failure of governing bodies to handle the growing situation, it is clear that this issue is still fresh on the mind of the Finnish auteur.
In typical Kaurismaki fashion, he presents these harsh criticisms of the system through his own deadpan comedic style. In his lens, diversity is only widely accepted when it’s presented as an ever-changing rotation of ethnic restaurants. As is the case when Wikström’s restaurant tries to drum up business by turning the traditionally Nordic-themed establishment to a Japanese eatery. The switch is an unmitigated success unexpected to even the staff themselves, so successful in fact that they run out of supplies to feed the horde of Japanese tourists. Thus they serve them salted herrings masked under a mountain of wasabi before cutting to a Japanese maneki-neko cat “waving” goodbye to the tourists as they file out. Kaurismaki excels in drawing comedy from discomfort, his uncompromising unsentimental scenarios exposing the absurdness of the world through its satire.
At one point, Khaled remarks that he has fallen in love with Finland, at first you may question why? After all the country has turned him away and left him to waste, how could he love something that treated him so? But Khaled in a wider projection of Kaurismaki himself holds a love for Finland because there exists a love for its people. Circumstances dictate that everyone will have good days and bad days, in Kaurismaki’s world the bad days probably outnumber the good but the strength of the human condition remains. The Other Side of Hope is a darker film than his previous effort both in palate and narrative but as long as there is kindness within the people to rise then there is hope to rise above a broken system.