by Joanna van der Veen
The latest film from Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki is about two men from diametrically opposed walks of life. A tale of serendipitous meetings, unusual relationships and discrimination, it is a modern, off-beat look at the refugee crisis currently playing out across Europe.
Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is almost literally dropped into Helsinki from a coal freighter. Finnish door-to-door shirt salesman WaldemarWikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) is walking out of his marriage and his job, and hoping to get into the restaurant business. For about half of the film, we follow these two men separately. We see Khaled request asylum in Finland: a confusing, bureaucratic and ultimately fruitless journey. We see Wikström win a ton of money and invest it in the ‘Golden Pint’, a down at heel yet charming restaurant with three lacklustre employees and utterly terrible food.
Both men are taciturn, lonely and have a sort of solemn, aloof dignity. Khaled is searching for his sister, from whom he got separated during his journey. He is attacked, his asylum application is rejected and he ends up on the streets. Wikström adjusts easily to his life as a restaurateur,although he never cracks a smile. Their paths cross when Khaled sets up camp by the Golden Pint’s bins – and an unlikely friendship blossoms from the briefest of fist-fights.
In typical Kaurismäki style, the film is peppered by subtle, blackly comic moments. Though dealing with such a sensitive and charged subject matter, it is guaranteed to make you crack at least a wry smile. This delicate balance is perhaps best summed up in the words of the character Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), a fellow asylum seeker who befriends Khaled: “The melancholics are the first they send back … Smile, but not in the street. They’ll think you’re crazy.”.
Although it’s been six years since Kaurismäki’s last feature film (the fantastic Le Havre), he has maintained his deft touch and skill for finding the miraculous in the mundane. At the end of the day, The Other Side of Hope is a film about people living at the fringes of society, struggling to get by outside of an increasingly hostile mainstream. And this doesn’t just apply to Khaled and Wikström – the incidental characters, the supporting cast, fit the mould too. In fact, these background players are so compelling that they could probably each sustain at least a short film of their own: the waitress who takes pity on a mangy dog, the teenager surprisingly adept at producing fake IDs, the toilet attendant who thinks applying for asylum is a terrible idea… The list goes on.
The film is a neat 100 minutes long but it feels like it’s over in a flash, leaving you to mull over what might become of the characters. It’s pushed along by a lively soundtrack that features everything from folk to rockabilly, almost exclusively performed by live bands woven into the narrative.
A poignant, thoughtful tragicomedy – perfect if you like your films with a touch of the obscure.
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.