From the early 1980s to the late ’90s, Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki cranked out films at a Woody Allen rate, averaging a feature a year from 1983’s Crime and Punishment (his debut) through to 1996’s Drifting Clouds. Ranging from broadly farcical (1989’s Leningrad Cowboys Go America) to bleakly despairing (1990’s The Match Factory Girl), they were unified in both their empathy for the struggles of working class Finns and their extreme debt to Robert Bresson — all formal austerity and svelte, economic shape — albeit servicing deadpan comedy rather than the French master’s loftier visions of transcendence and grace.1
The last 10 years have yielded only 2011’s Le Havre and now The Other Side of Hope, both of which tackle the very contemporary subject of European immigration, without disturbing Kaurismäki’s brand as a likeably quaint miniaturist. Like Le Havre, Hope is a two-pronged narrative, detailing the threaded adventures of one have and one have-not; the former is Helsinki-based travelling salesman Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), whose recent fortune during a poker game leads to a new beginning as a restaurateur, and the latter is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian migrant dodging authorities while keeping track of his sister who he lost during his perilous journey.
Early scenes exude the comforting familiarity of being firmly in Kaurismäki-land, with details like a large, spherical cactus in a pot on a table as Wikström parts from his wife, and Khaled’s soot-covered, zombie-like emergence from beneath a pile of coal on the freighter he’s arrived on. The absurdist mood only continues from there, and Kaurismäki’s colour and compositional sense have lost none of their downcast-comic-strip appeal. As ever, there’s a palpable generosity to both the ensemble comedy of the restaurant scenes and the manner in which musical performances (from bar bands to buskers) are allowed to play out beyond scene-setting functionality; standard signs of humanist bonafides, maybe, but welcome ones.
Where The Other Side of Hope runs into trouble is meshing Khaled’s story — and the hot-button topicality of immigration — with Kaurismäki’s antiquated sensibility. The racial violence Khaled encounters is played as mild, stakes-free slapstick, while his long monologue about border-crossing horrors and the tragedy of being separated from his sister on the way — all captured in a single, unbroken shot — is oddly gravity-free, with Khaled’s stoicism subsumed into the film’s all-encompassing drollness. Soon after the latter scene, news footage of airstrikes in Syria plays out on a TV in the background of a refugee center, and the effect is as jarring as it is cheap; what could be more sobering, in this archly-artificial aesthetic context, than the sight of warfare on TV?
It goes without saying that Kaurismäki isn’t aiming for realism, and placing a fundamentally optimistic worldview in a such a formalised world has the effect of drawing attention to story’s optimistic turns as fantasy. The kindness and selfless support that Khaled is offered from Wikström and his friends is a utopian ideal, and the film culminates in a final shot that’s either heartwarming or troubling depending on how much your own optimism’s been stoked. For this viewer, Khaled never quite rises above being a piteous blank canvas (not the fault of Hajo, who acquits himself well with Kaurismäki’s performance style), rarely allowed to be a source of humour in the same way that his Finnish counterparts are, and thus dulling the effect of the film’s purported humanism and generosity.2
The Other Side of Hope gets by on the simple pleasures unique to Kaurismäki’s oeuvre — it’s always something to look at, and the one-liners and sight gags generally land — all the while carrying the worrying suggestion that this cantankerous joker is softening into something like the Bono of droll art cinema.