This never-ending year has relentlessly imposed its social and political context upon how we consume and interpret art. It’s become an exhausting cop-out by this point — evaluating the worth of films based on their timeliness or how they offer an escape from reality. And so you may be wary walking into The Other Side of Hope, with its title reminiscent of a self-help book and its politically neat logline of a Syrian protagonist finding new life in Helsinki (for American viewers, it will certainly call to mind the aggressively anti-immigration policies of the current administration).
But this is Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish director behind The Match Factory Girl (1990) and Le Havre (2011), and he’s better at executing this type of socially conscious story than most. The Other Side of Hope is a spiritual sequel to Le Havre, arriving six years later; both are sympathetic pictures of refugees without being overtly weepy or sentimental. They also share that very specific Kaurismaki aesthetic, with minimal production design and a simple cerulean palette that seems equally inspired by Vittorio Storaro and Picasso’s Blue Period. The films not only feel of a certain time, but they look as if they were actually made a few decades past — in the days of the French New Wave greats or Rainer Werner Fassbinder — with great cinematography by Kaurismaki’s regular director of photography Timo Salminen on 35 mm.
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And despite its serious subject — the refugee crisis hitting Europe — The Other Side of Hope is also very funny, never losing sight of the droll, comic upside to life, but never making light of tragedy, either. Kaurismaki, who also wrote the film, evinces his usual compassion for his main character, here a Syrian refugee named Khaled (played by first-time actor Sherwan Haji) seeking political asylum. Khaled is at first unrecognizable — his face masked by a coat of coal from the ship he hid on to escape home — but we eventually discover who he is and what he’s had to endure. He’s separated from his sister and unaware of her whereabouts; he bears horror stories from Aleppo, where a bombing destroyed his home. In Helsinki, he befriends a fellow refugee, an Iraqi man named Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), who gives him helpful survival advice and a means of communication with his cellphone, but Khaled is almost immediately exposed to racism and despair, too. We’re constantly reminded that his safe arrival in Finland doesn’t mean his hardship has come to an end.
Kaurismaki seamlessly weaves in another storyline, surprising us (and his hero) with what looks like a mere chance encounter that later reveals great significance in the film. Early on, Khaled is almost hit by a Finnish man in a car. That man turns out to be Wikstrom (played by Sakari Kuosmanen, another Kaurismaki regular), a shirt salesman who decides to buy a restaurant called The Golden Pint after leaving behind his crumbling marriage and making bank at an amusing game of poker.
Khaled, unable to leave the halfway home at the refugee center that feels like purgatory and faced with possible deportation, finds himself stumbling into The Golden Pint. After a brief brawl, Wikstrom hires Khaled and pays him under the table and even helps him get paperwork later. Kaurismaki avoids the tiresome white savior motif by not depicting Wikstrom as particularly heroic for aiding a man in need; we accept his action as basic human decency, and it’s this strain of understated kindness that runs throughout the movie. The Golden Pint also becomes Kaurismaki’s comic headquarters, with Wikstrom, Khaled and three other employees (the chef, the host and the waitress) exemplifying the auteur’s dry sense of humor and his penchant for gags. At one point, Wikstrom decides to make over the restaurant into a sushi joint, and they serve a group of Japanese tourists unappetizing servings of salted herring masked under heaping amounts of wasabi.
For all the deadpan comedy and eccentric characterization, Kaurismaki anchors the film in Khaled’s story and his immigration anxieties, all depicted with quiet humanity that never feels exaggerated. It’s a beautiful companion piece to Le Havre, and a film that will gently warm your cold, cynical heart.