'The Other Side of Hope' ('Toivon tuolla puolen'): Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
From left, Sherwan Haji, Nuppu Koivu, Janne Hyytianinen, Sakari Kuosmanen and Ilkka Koivula in 'The Other Side of Hope'
A must-visit destination.

Finnish master Aki Kaurismaki returns with his first feature in six years, a bittersweet comedy-drama about the unlikely friendship between a Syrian refugee and a low-rent Helsinki restaurateur.

The English-language title The Other Side of Hope, taken literally, suggests despair and dejection. But even with the potentially bleak fatefulness of its open ending, it's difficult to imagine anyone coming away from Aki Kaurismaki's gorgeous tragicomedy about the refugee crisis in Europe, the challenges of the restaurant business and the rewards of self-reinvention without feeling gentle elation sparked by the story's evidence of human kindness amid cruelty and indifference. This is a world that reeks of cigarette smoke and cheap vodka, yet as always in the work of Finland's maestro of droll melancholy, the perfume that lingers longest is empathy.

This is Kaurismaki's first feature in six years, since 2011's Le Havre, a captivating entry set in the French harbor town that stood proudly alongside the director's many screen excursions outside his homeland. (Like this film, it also dealt with illegal immigration.) Nonetheless, it's wonderful to be back in his Helsinki — its sad industrial waterfront, shabby bars, faded retro colors and hangdog faces suspended in a parallel time unconnected to the city's culture-capital hipster playgrounds.

Sure to entice the Kaurismaki faithful to international movie theaters, the new film could also expand that finite but passionate core audience by virtue of its topicality and its uniquely personal view of the displaced victims of Syrian warfare. As hardline anti-immigrant policies take hold in the new U.S. administration as well as abroad, the film's illuminating insight into the stories behind the statistics could not be timelier or more refreshing. It will come as no surprise to the writer-director's fans, however, that a vibrant strain of eccentric humor runs through the movie, ranging from delightful throwaway laughs to one scene of gut-busting hilarity that will make you think twice about ever setting foot in a dodgy sushi eatery again.

Kaurismaki has always had a peerless knack for submitting pressing social issues to his unmistakable worldview with tonally rich results, whether it was economic recession in Drifting Clouds, the homeless and dispossessed in The Man Without a Past, or poverty in La Vie de Boheme. He hasn't lost his touch, and The Other Side of Hope remains the work of a filmmaker unerringly sure of his distinctive voice.

The film recounts two stories that converge with unpredictable results. Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Helsinki by accident after having escaped violent aggressors by slipping aboard a coal freighter. He emerges from his hiding place blackened with dust, his appearance making him seem even more impossibly alien in the unfamiliar town.

Nevertheless, Khaled cleans up at the train station and reports to the police to apply for political asylum. "Welcome, you are not the first," says the expressionless cop who files his photo, fingerprints and other information before placing him in a holding cell. There, he meets Iraqi refugee Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), who will become an important friend and ally. Mazdak has been bounced between limbo facilities for a year, moving neither forward nor backward.

At Khaled's immigration interview, he recounts the circumstances that brought him to Finland, the tragic bombing that wiped out his home and most of his family in Aleppo, and the difficult journey across multiple borders, during which he was separated from his sister, Miriam (Niroz Haji). There's an element of ironic detachment even to these scenes, but the gravity of the situation is never in doubt, just like the anxiety that pervades the air of the holding center, mixing with the cigarette smoke of sleepless men.

Despite TV news of a fresh wave of horror in Aleppo, the court turns down Khaled's request, ordering him to be repatriated. But he escapes and attempts to remain in the country illegally.

At the same time all this is unfolding, sour middle-aged traveling shirt salesman Wikstrom (Kaurismaki favorite Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his wife (Kaija Pakarinen), whose spiky disposition is suggested by the bulbous cactus sitting beside her overflowing ashtray and half-empty vodka bottle. Desiring a fresh start, Wikstrom offloads his remaining shirt stock and multiplies the proceeds in an illegal poker game, a suspenseful scene that could almost be an amusing standalone short film.

Via an agency specializing in the sale of troubled businesses, Wikstrom buys a small restaurant, The Golden Pint, a dive that comes supposedly with a regular clientele and a fixed staff of three: lugubrious greeter Calaminius (Ilkka Koivula); unadventurous cook Nyrhinen (Janne Hyytiainen), whose range doesn't extend much beyond meatballs and canned sardines; and waitress Mirja (Nuppu Koivu). Also, because it wouldn't be a Kaurismaki film without an irresistible screen dog, they convince the gruff but fair new boss to let them keep a scruffy mutt on the premises.

When Wikstrom finds Khaled hiding behind the restaurant, the two men, whose paths have crossed briefly earlier, exchange blows. But a restorative bowl of soup and a job offer quickly follow, with Wikstrom and his staff becoming Khaled's friends and protectors in another quintessentially Kaurismakian portrait of an unlikely community thrown together by circumstance.

Alongside Khaled's concern over Miriam's fate, and violent scenes in which the Syrian is assaulted by three brutes calling themselves the Liberation Army of Finland, Kaurismaki threads charming accounts of the Golden Pint crew's funny attempts to goose the establishment's revenues. Here and elsewhere, terrific use is made of twangy rockabilly tunes performed by Tuomari Nurmio, either solo or with band, singing with gusto about mercy and misery, memory and home, death and heartache.

While the film depicts a world seldom far removed from grim reality, the sly strain of humor keeps it buoyant, nowhere more so than in Kaurismaki’s deadpan dialogue, delivered with affectless aplomb by his marvelous cast. Following a health and safety inspection of the restaurant, Wikstrom says: "Tolerable. Just the dining hall and kitchen scored badly." And when a shady operator producing a fake ID asks Khaled, "Male or female?" he replies, "I don't understand humor."

Like the impeccably balanced tone, the look of the movie is also classic Kaurismaki, from regular DP Timo Salminen's composed camera and almost formal use of space to the sublimely drab production design (also the work of the director), full of idiosyncratic touches. The incongruous Jimi Hendrix portrait in the Golden Pint is a gem. Not unlike the salted herring with wasabi that gets served to a busload of unfortunate Japanese diners, this is a movie about foreign elements coming together, whether it's displaced Middle Easterners fleeing atrocity in sleepy Scandinavia or two men from different worlds forging a mutually enriching friendship that speaks of selfless compassion without sentimentality.

Cast: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Ilkka Koivula, Janne Hyytiainen, Nuppu Koivu, Kaija Pakarinen, Niroz Haji, Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon
Production companies: Sputnik, Bufo, Pandora Film
Director-screenwriter: Aki Kaurismaki
Producers: Aki Kaurismaki, Misha Jaari, Mark Lwoff, Reinhard Brundig
Director of photography: Timo Salminen
Production designer: Aki Kaurismaki
Costume designer: Tiina Kaukanen
Editor: Samu Heikkila
Casting: Eevi Kareinen
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Match Factory

98 minutes