Welcome To Finland: Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side Of Hope (2017) – Blu-ray review
Kaurismäki finds the funny side – eventually – to the refugee crisis, in a film whose bittersweet tone is gatecrashed by typically brilliant, deadpan slapstick.
The Other Side Of Hope
(Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)
“Finland is a good country,” says Khaled (Sherwan Haji), the Syrian applying for asylum in the Scandinavian country. And, for anybody who has seen the work of Aki Kaurismäki, goodness is synonymous with Finland. Films such as The Man Without A Past have revolved around the kindness of strangers and the restorative balm of rock and roll. Even his last film, the French-set Le Havre, showed that this spirit crossed borders.
In The Other Side Of Hope, though, there’s a darker, less optimistic tone. Like Le Havre, this sees a local – restaurant owner Wikström (Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) – take in a refugee rather than see him deported. But this crucial incident takes place halfway through the new film. True, Wikström and Khaled’s paths do cross, briefly, in the opening moments, but then their parallel stories run separately for over half the film.
It’s quite a contrast. Khaled faces a life on hold, with the endless bureaucracy leavened only by the Arabic-speaking community in the refugee centre. He’s desperate to settle so he can provide an end destination for his AWOL sister, but everything is hard – including the supposed enlightened, welcoming attitudes of the state. These sequences are Kaurismäki without a lot of humour – for once, his style is deadpan because there isn’t much to laugh about – but still full of warmth and affection.
For Wikström, though, it’s practically a parody of Kaurismäki. At rock bottom after separating from his wife, Wikström simply walks away and starts again. He sells his shirt business, boosts his earnings at the poker table and then buys a restaurant, complete with diffident but reliable staff. Life’s a lottery, and Wikström comes out on top whatever he does, even down to the ill-advised relaunch of his restaurant as a sushi bar. This is pure comedy gold, one of the funniest sequences Kaurismäki has ever done – with the hangdog acting style, sardonic tableaux and exaggerated production design, complete with incongruous portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall, a far cry from the more realistic tone of Khaled’s half of the story.
Remarkably, Kaurismäki melds the two stories together, linked by his generosity of spirit and the inevitable live performances by Finnish blues musicians. The fragile intersection is a reminder that the other side of hope is, of course, despair. For Khaled, shunned by the authorities and prey to neo-Nazis – clearly, not everybody got the memo about Finland being a good country – it’d be easy to cave in. Yet the film has let him into Wikström (and, by extension, Kaurismäki’s) world, and it’s a lovely, hopeful place to be.