Film Review: The Other Side of Hope

As quirky as it is charming, this parable of a Syrian refugee’s escape to Helsinki, where salvation comes by way of a first-time Finnish restaurateur, further establishes Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki as a genuine auteur with recurring cinematic tics.
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Having gained attention at festival hot spots like Berlin, Toronto, New York and Telluride, The Other Side of Hope again displays Aki Kaurismäki’s stamp of originality, not just for its own sake but as another delightful gift again bearing social relevance for his loyal fans.

The politically inflected film also delivers a mix of the filmmaker’s fixations; as in his previous Le Havre, another major industrial port—here Helsinki—is central to the plight of the odd man society leaves out. And again Kaurismäki does not leave out the fun, warmth and surprise as he delivers entirely credible characters, even if painted in broader strokes.

Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a Syrian refugee who, after stowing away on a cargo ship and emerging covered in coal, escapes into the Helsinki port. He cleans up in a public restroom and finds a shelter where he can temporarily settle in. He’s soon photographed and fingerprinted by Norwegian authorities, with whom he applies for asylum status. There are also the inevitable bureaucratic maze of paperwork and long waits to confront.

Meanwhile, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged native addicted to poker, leaves his dreary wife and dreary traveling salesman job to invest a card-playing windfall as a restaurant entrepreneur. Clueless regarding that business, a location or even the kind of food he’ll serve, he engages a broker. The crosscutting with Khaled’s plight accelerates.

A socioeconomic world away but in the very same town, the refugee is denied asylum-seeker status. After immigration officials move to deport him and send him to a repatriation center, he escapes and goes underground. Roaming the streets, he is nearly set afire by hoodlums who don’t like Helsinki’s newcomers.

Salvation of sorts comes by way of Wikström, who, having just opened his first-ever eatery, finds Khaled sleeping among trash cans in the back. Taking pity, he hires the illegal as a cleaning person and dishwasher and gives him lodging in the restaurant basement. Close calls come courtesy of inspectors who unexpectedly show up, but throughout his ordeal, Khalid never gives up hope that he’ll be reunited with his lost sister Miriam (Niroz Haji), with whom he escaped Syria.

An assortment of other characters float through the story, including a fellow Syrian refugee, Wikström’s oddball staff and townie customers, street punks and musicians gifted in rockability, faux folk, etc. But the story’s fiber remains the unusual bonding of besieged refugee Khalid and his unlikely restaurant boss.

Stories per se and even characters (unless they tend to be societal toss-offs) have never been Kaurismäki’s strong point. His narratives hold, but his hallmarks as auteur are his visual and aural eccentricities. Here again are the static camera, symmetrical compositions, the pop-up musicians and their often old-fashioned, even tacky repertoires. Wikström’s restaurant, which changes décor fast-food fast (maybe evoking Japan, maybe India), is also curiously bereft of crowds and even food. Kaurismäki’s cinematic menu often features formal and artificial touches that recall some of Alain Resnais’ stranger works.

Kaurismäki’s deadpan humor is hardly ha-ha, nor are his minimalist, moody production designs much more than retro and recalling the good old no-budget days of by-the-boots 16mm Bolex indie filmmaking. Yet, his themes of prejudice and refugee strife couldn’t be timelier. Continuing to amuse and endear with an alchemy all his own, he’s easy listening and watching for the art-house crowd.

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