Aki Kaurismäki is in top droll, compassionate form dealing with the refugee crisis in The Other Side of Hope (Toivon Tuolla Puolen).
The Odd Coupleby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
As a container-ship freighter docks in a Finnish port, a man’s head emerges out its heaped cargo of coal, where he has been hiding. His face is black with coal dust. Elsewhere in the city, a middle-aged man closes his suitcase and leaves his keys and wedding ring on the table next to the potted cactus. As he drives off, he comes face to face with the first man in the road but they don’t meet yet. Later they do and it’s the unexpected way their relationship turns out that is the heart of the film.
Asylum seeker Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is sleeping rough among dustbins when eventually he is found by Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a travelling shirt salesman who has left his vodka-sodden wife (Kaija Pakarinen), sold his business, won money in a poker game and bought a down-at-heel restaurant, the Golden Pint, and its barely competent staff of three – a cook, a waitress and a doorman (Nuppu Koivu, Janne Hyytianinen and Ilkka Koivula).
The Other Side of Hope looks dark, gloomy and hyperreal on screen, visually stuck in a shabby ’70s time warp yet dealing with issues that are over-ridingly contemporary – public and bureaucratic attitudes to Syrian asylum seekers, international migration, and racism and fascism in European host countries. In a refugee centre, a friendly Iraqi man Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon) advises Khaled to look happy as that will make him more likely to be allowed to stay. Despite the bombings in Aleppo, it doesn’t work and so he breaks out.
Contrary to what might be expected from the violent way they meet, Wikström helps Khaled, giving him a job and somewhere to live – and they also form a relationship based on a bond of human kindness and the unspoken fact that they are both reinventing themselves. The restaurant staff become his friends and protectors. Wikström even goes beyond the basics by getting Khaled a fake ID and paying to smuggle Khaled’s sister Miriam (Niroz Haji), also a refugee stranded elsewhere in Europe, into the country.
It’s Kaurismäki’s first film in six years since Le Havre, which also deal with illegal immigation. His style is still appealingly droll, deadpan, absurd. The episodes of the film are punctuated by street musicians, headed by Tuomari Nurmio, playing his favourite rockabilly. Compassionate, humane values are touchingly and lovably central in a world that he creates where anything seems possible. It’s ridiculous and sympathetic at the same time – compelling filmmaking.
The Other Side of Hope premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and is released on 26 May 2017 in the UK.