The Other Side of Hope is the name of writer-director Aki Kaurismäki’s new movie, but it’s also an apt descriptor of the mental and emotional headspace in which his characters have always dwelt. They seek normalcy, love, shelter, a car that doesn’t sputter out, a job that isn’t on the precipice of ending — desires that usually exist just out of reach, so they settle for a cold pint and some rock ’n’ roll on a jukebox.
Happiness is dampened, enthusiasm curbed, pleasure compromised. Sometimes they just drop dead. Like Fassbinder and Bresson protagonists before him, they accept whatever hand they’re dealt with stoic inevitability, but we feel the pain they’re too numb to express. If the other side of hope is despair, that sounds about right.
Yet his films are unquestionably comedies, even down to their darkest machinations — an acknowledgment that life is still a funny place, even if it is also a place of suffering. Both of these things can be true. And so it is with the first shot in The Other Side of Hope that you’ll remember, in which a man suddenly emerges, neck-deep, from a container full of dirt on a cargo ship in Finland. On its own, the image is cartoonlike, the stuff of Scooby-Doo or Looney Tunes. On another level, it carries the burden of religious symbolism, the phoenix rising from the ashes to be reborn into a new life.
But it’s the socially conscious interpretation that ends up sticking. Once the escapee is spirited off the vessel with the help of a compassionate captain, he wipes the soot off his face, finds some clean clothes and dutifully checks himself into the immigration authorities. Eventually, we discover his backstory.
His name is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), and he’s a refugee from the Syrian War, seeking asylum in Finland. He returned home one day to find his home in Aleppo reduced to rubble, along with six members of his family. He fled with his sister across the Balkan route, but lost her around the Turkish border. He would like to live in peace in Finland, but he’d drop everything at the first word of his sister’s whereabouts. Along the way, he’s become a political agnostic — he doesn’t care if it was “the government, the rebels, the U.S., Russia or ISIS” that committed the bombing — and a religious apostate. “I buried the Prophet along with my family,” he says.
Whoa. These are heavy, confrontational, international themes for a writer-director whose traditional comfort zones are the workaday travails of Finland’s proletariat. But Kaurismäki has been widening his lens. His most recent feature, 2011’s Le Havre, explored the similar subject of illegal immigration.
The Other Side of Hope moves with that film’s sense of fable logic, but we never doubt the veracity of its refugee experience. It’s a film that gives shape to the scattered diaspora of Syrians, who are thrown like so much shrapnel to places near and far, and to countries that accept or reject them. It channels the static frustrations of a life between lives, one that’s stuck in a purgatorial retention center where, as a fellow refugee puts it, “I’ve been here a year already, and I don’t go forward or backward. I bring no joy to anyone.”
Kaurismäki divides his film between Khaled’s journey and that of Waldemar Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen, who starred in Kaurismäki’s biggest box-office hit, The Man Without a Past), a sixty-something clothing salesman forging a new path in life. This is more-familiar deadpan territory for Kaurismäki. In the character’s wordless introduction, he leaves his wife by removing his wedding ring and placing it, and his key, on the kitchen table. After he leaves, she drops the ring in an ashtray, unceremoniously stubs a cigarette onto it, and pours herself another shot of vodka.
In his own version of an existential reboot, Waldemar refocuses his energies, and finances, on purchasing an austere, customer-starved bar/restaurant called the Golden Pint. Three employees — a maitre d’, a server and a comatose chef — come with the deal, all sporting dour faces. It’s the kind of restaurant that serves one menu item, sardines and boiled potatoes — “it’s a fusion kitchen,” explains the waitress to a lone patron. In the movie’s funniest sequence, Waldemar transforms the Golden Pint, seemingly overnight, into an Asian restaurant, complete with a gong, a kimono-clad staff, even a “lucky cat” swinging its arm by the register.
We spend much of the film waiting for Khaled and Waldemar’s parallel journeys to merge — beyond a brief cohabitation of the director’s frame, early on, at a local intersection — and Kaurismäki doesn’t disappoint. Those seeking the director’s trademark music interludes, too, will be satisfied to abundance. Street-corner buskers, barroom folk-rockers and rollicking FM-radio exaltations fill the soundtrack with noise, often joyfully juxtaposing disturbing onscreen actions.
Indeed, the story presents all possible reactions to Khaled’s presence, from Finns eager to help to insult-hurling thugs to white-nationalist skinheads with lighters and pocketknives. While Khaled’s search for his sister reaches a conclusion, his future is an open question. Perhaps the most revealing shot is of Khaled nursing a wound by a tree, his only companion for the moment a scruffy dog discovered near the restaurant — and then promptly removed from it, like an illegal immigrant. They’re a couple of life’s strays, finding a moment of solace together.
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE. Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Ikka Koivula; Director: Aki Kaurismäki; Distributor: Janus Films; In Finnish, English and Arabic with English subtitles; Opens: Today at Coral Gables Art Cinema; Dec. 29 at Living Room Theaters at FAU