Khaled, syrian refugee stows away on a freighter to Helsinki. Meanwhile, Wikström is a traveling salesman who wins big at a poker table and buys himself a restaurant with the proceeds. When the authorities turn down his application for asylum, Khaled is forced underground and Wikström finds him sleeping in the yard behind his restaurant. He offers him a job and a roof over his head and, for a while, they form a Utopian union with the restaurant's waitress, the chef and his dog.Written by
Finnish director, Aki Kaurismäki has successfully established himself as a respectable auteur in world cinema. When it was announced after the release of Kaurismäki's last film "Le Havre" (2011) that it would be followed by another film covering similar topics and themes, audiences have been anxiously waiting for his next effort. Thus, six years later, comes "The Other Side of Hope" (2017, "Beyond Hope" literally), a film that Kaurismäki wanted to get out before it was too late. One should not be surprised by such openness about the film's political agenda given Kaurismäki's usual tendencies to do so. Nor should one be surprised by the fact that "The Other Side of Hope" is everything one could expect from Kaurismäki: an immediately recognizable film belonging to the canon of his oeuvre. While some Finnish critics have been disappointed by the lack of innovation or regeneration from Kaurismäki, they have failed to appreciate that often the best artists keep doing the "same" over and over again -- think of Ozu and Hawks, for instance, both of whom Kaurismäki adores tremendously.
Like "Le Havre", "The Other Side of Hope" also tells the story about a refugee encountering a European local. The small port town of Le Havre in France has been changed to Helsinki in Finland and the North-African refugee to a Syrian. The film follows Khaled's (played by Sherwan Haji) day- to-day activities in the red tape of immigration policy, his attempts to track down his lost sister, and his conflicts with locals as well as a parallel story about a Finnish man (played by Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) who leaves his wife and starts up a restaurant which eventually leads him to meet Khaled.
As mentioned above, one can recognize the film as Kaurismäki's instantly. The cinematography is often static by nature (even camera movement is rather mechanic), the acting is deadpan and the actors' delivery is laconic to the bone, there is nostalgic popular music, and mise-en-scène is characterized by vintage elements from old cars to type writers as well as classic Hollywood lighting. These cinematic means often give an ironic impression which, nonetheless, never reduces the film to a parody of itself; it manages to take itself seriously while joking around, so to speak. They also constitute an extremely economic narrative where a wordless act such as the placing of a ring on a kitchen table can say more than a thousand words. In terms of tone, Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between of tragedy and comedy, cynicism and humanism, melancholy and laughter.
In this world of deep contradictions -- not only in tone, of course, but also in, say, the co- existence of vintage elements in mise-en-scène with modern technology -- Kaurismäki's characters often find themselves to be strangers. They are strangers essentially in two senses. First, they are strangers of society; they are thugs, loners, divorced, unemployed, homeless, and refugees. Second, they are strangers of existence; their being in the world is twisted in the sense that they talk absurdly little, do not notice the absurdities of the fictive world with its contradictions, stand still for long periods of time, and can suddenly announce that they will move to Mexico City for a change of scenery without giving rise to any trace of astonishment in their interlocutors.
It seems to me that Kaurismäki's phenomenology of strangeness, if I may give it such a hasty word, has gained significant new dimensions in his contemporary cinema of global ethics. The strangers of "The Other Side of Hope" find comrades in each other without a need to announce it. They are the global working class with no nation. They are a plural bunch whose shared humanity overcomes individual differences. In a key scene echoing "Le Havre", there is a moving montage of human faces as the refugees in the reception center listen to a wordless ballad by Khaled. It is a very Kaurismäki-esque moment of cinematic personality, but here the strangeness seems to articulate heavily moral meanings in particular.
While the film is unapologetically moral and political in its message and agenda, it also comes across as a good piece of cinema with a poetry all its own (that is, the cinematic poetry of Kaurismäki's cinema in general, to be precise). Like many other films by Kaurismäki, sea is an essential element, which might represent the film's success in finding a place between poetry and politics. "The Other Side of Hope" begins with a beautiful shot of the Baltic Sea. To Peter von Bagh, a Finnish film critic and historian, all cinematic images of sea are masterful. The beauty of the sea is easily captured in a way which makes everyone a master. Yet, in order for us to care about these images, something has to happen -- either in terms of story, theme, or aesthetics -- in their appropriate contexts. In this sense, Kaurismäki delivers. The other side of hope, or its vague image in the world beyond, finds its elusive face on the surface of the sea. When Peter von Bagh passed away in 2014, Kaurismäki promised to dedicate his next film to von Bagh's memory, adding that "only if it is good enough." He did.
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