You would never dream of seeing any of Aki Kaurismaki’s characters on the front cover of GQ or Cosmopolitan with their frumpy clothes and unkempt hairstyles. They are not glamorous heroes saving the world but indifferent low lives who just want to be left alone, but the cruel, uncaring world shits on them at every turn. Yet, they endure. That endurance shines through The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki’s dark comedy about a Syrian refugee and a Finnish clothing salesman.
We first meet young Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) as he walks off a cargo ship covered in soot, having escaped neo-Nazis in Germany. As an accidental stowaway, he must go through the frustrating bureaucratic process of seeking asylum… again while trying to find his sister. But circumstances leave him on the run.
Now let’s look at our second protagonist; middle aged clothing salesman Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen). When we first meet him, he’s leaving his drunken wife and ditching his job to become a poker shark. After winning some big bucks, he achieves his dream of buying a restaurant. All of this within the first forty minutes. Soon their worlds collide when Wikstrom finds Khaled sleeping near his restaurant and hires him as a custodian.
I can’t talk about the Other Side of Hope without first discussing Kaurismaki’s trademark style. Well, it’s more accurate to say his lack of style. He avoids any form of flashy cinematic glamour in favour of portraying the environment in all it’s plainness, cracks and all. That plainness goes for the actors as well. Not only are the actors the least glamorous looking in film history, but Kaurismaki has them act with as little emotion as possible. Never once do you get the idea he’s trying to impress anyone.
At first glance, this lack of style makes Kaurismaki’s films seem boring. Under all the plainness, Kaurismaki sneaks in moments of brilliant storytelling. Take the scene where Wikstrom leaves his wife. Kaurismaki manages to convey each character’s contempt for each other without one line of dialogue. It ends in a funny moment where the wife puts out her cigarette on her husband’s wedding ring. Speaking of humour, you’d surprised by how funny this film is. Like Jacques Tati, Kaurismaki finds humour in the smallest detail, like a jukebox shutting off when Wikstrom sits next to it. Unlike Tati, Kaurismaki finds most of his humour from pathetic circumstances, like the hilarious scene of Wikstrom trying to pass his restaurant off as a sushi place for Japanese tourists, serving them sardine nigiri.
I should warn you; this film can be very cruel to the characters. Don’t worry, the film never comes off as mean-spirited. If anything, Kaurismaki admires how these people endure such hopeless circumstances. Sure, the world still beats them down at every opportunity, but the director finds hope in how these characters put up with such hopelessness. Since La Havre, Kaurismaki admiration has focused on refugees. You can feel a lot of care in Khaled’s struggle with the system, from the frustrating bureaucracy to ongoing attacks from Neo-Nazis.
Looking at Kaurismaki’s previous films, Khaled and Wikstrom are kind of deviate from the filmmaker’s usual character traits. His characters usually don’t have any major goals to achieve or major flaws to overcome. All they want is to go on with their average day with no major problems to deal with. But in this film, Khaled has the central goal of seeking asylum and trying to find his sister. And usually the characters start off at the bottom and continue to sink lower in an cruel, ugly world, which makes it weird to see Wikstrom always winning in poker and achieving his goal so early in the film. Albeit, it’s a seedy restaurant with low quality food (sardines, anyone) and indifferent employees, but he still achieves his dream. It doesn’t ruin the film at all. It’s just a curiosity
While his style of film isn’t for everyone, The Other Side of Hope wears its heart within its austere sleeve. Like other Kaurismaki films, this one finds dark humour and cautious hope within its indifferent characters and cynical world. Now, he uses his trademark style to contrast the everyday trivialities with the struggles of refugees. As he’s stated in the Cannes Press Conference “We are all human and tomorrow it will be you who will be a refugee.”