Stephen King’s Roland Deschain once asked a New Yorker “do people in your world always want only one story-flavour at a time? Only one taste in their mouths?” Mixing tone or genre is often a dangerous act for a story, as audiences may dismiss them out of hand. Writer/director Aki Kaurismäki’s (Centro Histórico) The Other Side of Hope is a film that is both a sensitive and heartfelt look at the plight of refugees and a series of absurd vignettes about running a restaurant.
Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Finland on a coal ship, seeking asylum. Shirt salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his wife and buys an abysmal but apparently profitable restaurant. Eventually their paths cross.
The dual nature of The Other Side of Hope makes it a movie of crushing inevitability and constant surprises. Khaled’s adventures have moments that allow for optimism, but he becomes so mired in bureaucracy and the threat of skinhead stalkers that his scenes are watched through a prism of constant worry. Inversely, Wikström’s scenes are run on an opaque internal logic that the audience will not necessarily ever be party to, and so prediction becomes a fool’s errand. Whatever is going to happen happens, and when Wikström and Khaled overlap, the former is able to at least temporarily shield the latter in his bizarre existence.
With such an unorthodox script, Kaurismäki depends upon his performers to make them credible. Kuosmanen plays Wikström as a grizzled soft-touch, the sort of man who would punch you in the face and immediately buy you dinner by way of apology. Realistically, there’s nothing of the hard case about him, and his unlikely warmth for his employees radiates throughout the movie. Haji, playing a more grounded role, is natural and deeply sympathetic, and Wikström and his bizarre support staff respond appropriately.
Kaurismäki’s Finland is a confusing country; if one did not know that this is set in the present, they could be forgiven for suspecting they were witnessing a story set in the seventies or eighties. People watch CRT televisions; police enter reports on typewriters even as they sit next to laptops and take mugshots using digital cameras; the refugees share mobile phones amongst themselves, but the native Finns seem as if they’ve never heard of cellular technology. It’s an odd way to portray a country to international audiences, but it contributes to the otherworldly nature of the film as a whole, and even Kaurismäki himself seems uncertain of whether the unreal will triumph over the real.
The Other Side of Hope is a deeply human movie, one in which all of the key players are treated with warmth and respect by their benevolent director. Kaurismäki has a unique talent for making us understand that the world is a terrible place, but that at least some of the people in it deserve happiness. He tries to deliver that to the best of his ability, but sometimes even absurdity is conquered by the weight of reality. The Other Side of Hope is a delicate balancing act that engages with the optimism deep within all of our souls, and it satisfies at a primal level.
The Other Side of Hope screens at the Sydney Film Festival, June 7-18, 2017.
Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki.
Starring: Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen.