Aki Kaurismäki’s “The Other Side of Hope” is the kind of film about asylum seekers that one imagines Rainer Werner Fassbinder would have made. The Syrian refugee crisis is inescapable in contemporary Europe and “The Other Side of Hope” is a deft and quiet tale of a group of compassionate Finnish folk assisting a single refugee to have a better life in any way possible. However, instead of the sweeping melodrama (Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows” was enhanced and elevated with its reimagining as Fassbinder’s “Ali: Fear Eat’s The Soul”) that a premise like this has the potential to conjure, Kaurismäki stages a deliberately paced film that presents the reality of human compassion in stark contrast to ‘empathy’ in the face of bureaucracy.
Kaurismäki may feel objective and detached in his portrayal of Khaled and his plight; but the politics of humanity ring unspeakably loud in the humour contained in “The Other Side of Hope.” Wikström and his bungling rag tag crew flounder attempting to change the fortunes of the restaurant. Appeasing health inspectors by hiding the restaurant’s resident dog (and Khaled) in the bathroom, using a cocky, tech savvy millennial to forge Khaled some identification documents, and attempting to change the restaurant’s theme to Japanese cuisine; amongst this hilarious misdirection is compassion and care for Khaled and his family’s future prosperity.
“The Other Side of Hope” is a story of comparative stakes that demonstrates Kaurismäki’s confidence in creating long and short range tension. Khaled, played as a near blank canvas by the charming Sherwan Haji, has made the gamble to escape from the conflict in his home country of Syria and journey throughout the European continent to the sanctuary of Finland. Hoping that his distance from the conflict and the size of the country will increase his chances of asylum, Khaled is introduced writhing free from concealment in a mound of coal aboard a ship. Soot covered, he emerges from a boat and straight to the authorities.
The ‘long range’ tension of Khaled’s journey is that we experience his epic journey through interviews with the authorities who use this testimony to eventually determine the validity of the request. The audience takes the place of the interviewer’s camera; Kaurismäki withholds ever so slightly the impulse to have Khaled addressing the audience. His unassuming style, his candour about faith lost; his matter of fact delivery of countless tragedies and trials are paced out throughout the arc of the character and the film so well that there’s not a moment that you’re not intrigued. The emotional distance is created through bureaucratic deliberation.
The salesman-cum-restauranteur Wikström - played by Sakari Kuosmanen - is a living oxymoron of ’savvy’ and ‘ineptitude.’ He’s introduced to the film selling his business assets, discarding his marriage and wedding ring and taking his life to a high stakes poker game reeking of desperation and inevitable failure. The poker scene is an absolute powder keg and it unfolds in a series of expressions and gestures of the characters staged around the space reacting. It’s the kind of thrilling close range tension inducing sequence that is reminiscent of “Casino Royale” and “Rounders.” Kaurismäki takes you right into the centre of this gamble. Wikström’s risk is beginning a new life and watching his passive aggressive betting take him to the highest stakes of the already ‘high stakes’ game. When he bets against the house and looks to have won, the audience sees what it’s like in his shoes; daggers from the eyes of security reps show that this change of profession dice roll may have ended in death. Wikström’s risk in this game and in the sea change is self-imposed. After his unbelievable win, he takes the cash and invests in a restaurant; this is where the fun begins.
Conversely for Khaled, seeking refuge in the mostly safe Finland means that the threats aren’t as apparent. This is where spaces between characters and threats are so pertinent in “The Other Side of Hope.” Open spaces often collapse as external threats in the form of imposing figures flock around Khaled. There is a particularly hair-raising scene where Khaled is enjoying the Finnish blue grass scene and a series of swollen neo-Nazi’s begin to encircle him, closer and closer. Their troll-like faces stretched agog. They grab him, remove him from the performance and to the carpark and fully intend to burn him alive, until the compassion of a group of homeless folk intervenes.
In the final moments of “The Other Side of Hope,” Khaled stares out to an ugly Finnish port, having experienced another life altering encounter. In the final moments of this poignant, funny and powerful little film, you’ll find yourself in awe of a modern Kaurismäki triumph.
The Other Side of Hope (2017)
Directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
Written by: Aki Kaurismäki
Sherwan Haji - Khaled
Sakari Kuosmanen - Wikström
Cinematography by: Timo Salminen
Film Editing by: Samu Heikkilä
Running Time: 1hr 40 mins