“I’d like of whatever these unbelievers drink.”
In many ways this could be the most depressing film yet from Aki Kaurismaki – for no other reason than that he claims that it will be his last. The Other Side of Hope is a relevant modern drama about striving for hope and reconciliation in unexpected environments and it directly addresses current issues, particularly those of immigration and integration, to a far greater extent than much of his previous output. Yet none of the elements that have defined Kaurismaki’s previous works – the tragic and the comic as well as the music set in socially strange yet totally realistic backgrounds – are in any way missing. Even in its darkest hours of victimisation and its explicit references to social issues, this is quintessential Kaurismaki.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has finally arrived in Finland, smuggled aboard a ship by hiding in its cargo of coal, this is the culmination of an exodus from the horror of his home city of Aleppo in Syria. Following the devastation of the city and the loss of most of his family he wants to find his sister Miriam (Niroz Haji) who managed to accompany him for much of the journey before the pair became separated. His current aim is clear – “I want to seek asylum in Finland” – for which he needs to go through refugee centres and the required diplomatic necessities to hopefully become part of a country where he is without money, job or any real acquaintances other than those he has met in the asylum process, who offer advice, cigarettes and sometimes mobile phones so that he can try to search for his sister. Meanwhile Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) has just left his wife and his job. She was content with a life involving fags and vodka and he has sold his stock of men’s shirts, seeking to become the owner of his own restaurant instead. Playing Stud Poker at a dubious gambling emporium he strikes a win and buys a nearby venue. This venue is the Golden Pint and he not only takes on the premises, he also takes on the staff: the doorman, the dubious smoking chef and the waitress. As Wikström relaunches a whole new career, Khaled is awaiting confirmation or rejection of his asylum application whilst seeking employment to make ends meet and avoiding nationalistic thugs who despise all immigrants. The two men meet and their lives change in unexpected ways.
The lead protagonists first encounter each other early on in the film when Wikström, driving away from his failed marriage, almost runs Khaled over as he crosses the road. Their lives more clearly join later in the narrative but this brief encounter emphasises the coincidences and absurdities that are typical of reality, certainly as seen by Aki Kaurismaki. As Khaled continues his walk he passes a busker (who will return later on stage with his band) playing a blues song that inspires him. It is also the song that simultaneously is playing over Wikström in his car so the diegetic music of the cinema narrative is juxtaposed with its use on the soundtrack overlaying the car journey. Kaurismaki uses this device to match time and music throughout key scenes within the film.
Although aspects of pathos and tragedy are common in most Kaurismaki films here they are given a far more political and contemporary context. The horrors of the war in Syria are referenced in detail and Khaled’s attempt to seek asylum is intrinsic to his arrival in Finland, but the reception he receives varies massively and not just with the authorities, some sympathetic, others are bureaucrats doing their jobs, but also fellow refugees who go out of their way to help. And then there is the Liberation Army of Finland, a group of brutal racist fascist thugs seeking to beat immigrants. But the tragic situations depicted are counterbalanced with scenes and situations that are so hilarious you’ll need hankies to dry away the tears. There are vocal misunderstandings – when getting a taxi Khaled is asked his identity by the driver who asks, “Male or female?” Khaled replies, “I don’t understand humour.” – to situation comedy that ranges from the deadpan to the absurd. In one particular scene both Khaled and a puppy have to hide from the police and restaurant inspectors who will naturally be appalled to find immigrants or animals on the premises. Later, Wikström seeks to expand his business potential by making his restaurant more trendy, seeking a new culinary direction, the team’s resultant attempts at making sushi are laugh-out-loud hilarious.
For a film where, as in most of Kaurismaki’s works, the music is central not just for the soundtrack but intrinsic to the characters and the environment, the extras on the disc conveniently provide four tracks from the film so that viewers can play these back for their own post film enjoyment. All in all, a welcome conclusion to a wonderful and unique cinematic career where the combination of deep depression, darkness and droll delight makes for an unusual and unexpectedly emotional political human drama. Profound, poignant, deeply moving and belly achingly funny.