The Other Side Of Hope (Toivon tuolla puolen)

Finland (2017) Dir. Aki Kaurismäki

The Finnish master of the mundane returns with another low-key chronicle of life in his native country, laced as ever with his quietly absurd but cynically askewed humour that exposes more than it lampoons. Following on from 2011’s Le Havre, the ever-relevant topic of immigration is once again given the Kaurismäki treatment.

Essentially two disparate skeins in which the protagonists eventually unite by fate, the main immigrant of this tale is Syrian asylum seeker Khaled (Sherwan Haji), arriving in Helsinki having stowed away on a coal freighter. Fleeing from war torn Aleppo, Khaled is searching for his sister Miriam, having separated across the Balkans, and is seeking asylum in Finland to establish a base for when he and Miriam are reunited.

Meanwhile, travelling shirt salesman Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) has had enough of his wife (Kaija Pakarinen) and his job and decides to leave both. Selling the last of his shirts, Waldemar uses the money to fund his hand in a high stakes card game where he wins a tidy sum. With this money, Waldemar purchases a small restaurant in desperate need of reinvigorating which he hopes he is capable of pulling off.

Describing this film as humorous might be viewed as erroneous since this isn’t a comedy in the truest sense, perhaps not even a black one, but it has a droll and quirky air about it giving the impression of being light hearted. These moments of laconic pathos are admittedly rare, reserved mostly for Waldemar’s arc whilst Khaled’s plight provides the source for the social commentary.

The thing about Kaurismäki is that his films never really let us know if he is unhappy or embarrassed about his native Finland or he has an uncanny ability to find humour in the oddest places and wants to share these idiosyncrasies with the world. The latter is likely to be closest to the mark in most people’s opinion but there is no denying with this film in particular, Kaurismäki is pulling fewer punches and less subtle than usual.

Our first look at Khaled is him suddenly popping up from beneath a pile of coal onboard the freighter, his skin stained black all over. After a shower in a public washroom, an unrecognisable Khaled is sent to a refugee reception centre while awaiting his interview for his asylum request. At the centre Khaled meets Iraqi refugee Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), who becomes his point man for communication in searching for Miriam.

Through Khaled we get a glimpse at the procedures involved in claiming asylum, from the temporary accommodation to the one-on-one interviews along with suffering at the hands of thuggish nationalists and their rampant bigotry. Coupled with the uncertainty about his sister’s whereabouts, it would seem that Finland doesn’t have much to offer Khaled judging by this but the worst is yet to come as illustrated by arguably the most morally upsetting scene of the entire film.

Having been turned down for asylum because Finnish authorities didn’t consider Aleppo as a city under siege, nor that was actually a war in Syria at all, the scene cuts to Khaled and other refugees watching the news on TV relating the exact opposite of the home office judgement with genuine shocking footage of the atrocities Khaled fled from. It sounds heavy handed but it has the desired effect, and by avoiding a histrionic response from Khaled the outrage and shame is felt by all of us.

It seems unlikely that Waldemar’s thread should provide light to contrast this darkness but it does so in a very dead pan way. The Golden Pint restaurant is small, with just three staff members – doorman Calamnius (Ilkka Koivula), chef Nyrhinen (Janne Hyytiäinen) and waitress Mirja (Nuppu Koivu)  – none of whom have been paid recently, so they have little faith in their new boss.

Waldemar’s philosophy of picking ideas out of thin air and trying them out pays off, starting with a very clumsy sushi night which sees them run out of salmon and have to improvise with salted herrings instead! It’s almost Fawlty Towers without the manic farce and cartoon violence but cheekily sardonic. And in case you were wondering, Waldemar catches Khaled living behind his bins and after a fight, gives him a job.

Because of the sharp juxtaposition between the two storylines, the film is tonally askew but not jarringly so, thanks to Kaurismäki maintaining a leisurely pace and pervasive melancholic atmosphere that captures the acerbic intent behind the film’s gloomy title. Summing up the themes is not that simple – my interpretation is this is about reminding us that even in such hard times there are still some good folk about but they are at grass roots level and not in offices or in a position of power.

That might sound a bit reductive but the evidence, as I see it, is there – Khaled getting more help from strangers than he does official bureaucrats, while Waldemar finds his purpose in life again by helping others find theirs. Unless one is already familiar with Kaurismäki this may not seem so obvious given the unorthodox approach to the dual narrative that in other hands would be two separate films, which gives you an idea of  what Kaurismäki can and does get away with.

Kaurismäki’s trademark asides of musical journeymen providing the diegetic soundtrack of jaunty, lyrically relevant ditties to camera are still intact, as is his favoured veneer of a sedate 1970’s colour palette and similarly anachronistic attire, technology and vehicles, maybe hinting that Finland is stuck in the past? Even a mobile phone can’t make this feel contemporary which gives the political messages that extra sting.

What Kaurismäki exposes in The Other Side Of Hope needs to be seen beyond the small arthouse audience it will reach. Arguably his most polished work to date while presented in his distinctive style and still infused with a passionate humane intent more filmmakers could aspire to.