Rare titles take many forms: obscure books, once-in-a-lifetime gigs and, every once in a while, a foreign film. Recent release, The Other Side of Hope, is my first entry into Finnish cinema, and what a lasting impression it left.
There’s no avoiding the current migrant crisis – by all means, a humanitarian disaster. For the millions of Syrian refugees left stranded by war, Europe is their only form of escape. The situation we find ourselves in now is one of open arms and closed borders. Some view the welcoming of migrants as a moral responsibility; others argue it’s socially and culturally divisive. It’s one of the reasons Brexit happened. It’s also intrinsically linked to the war on terror.
Aki Kaurismäki’s new tragicomedy positions itself right at the centre of all this. Lead character, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), is a Syrian refugee who arrives into Helsinki on a container ship full of coal. On first impressions he’s filthy and says little, choosing instead to wander in silence. In an unexpected show of naivety, he hands himself over to the authorities in the expectation that he might receive asylum.
Opening up about his situation, he tells of the tragedy in Aleppo and explains that he’s come in search of his sister, Miriam (Niroj Haji) who went missing during one of their European border crossings.
I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of Finland’s migration policy. But, if this movie’s anything to go on, it’s far from welcoming. Khaled’s pleading is met with blank expressions and rationale which looks only to be founded on lies and prejudice. He’s told that Aleppo is no longer unsafe, but a TV advert he sees confirms the opposite to be true. He’s left with two choices: to cooperate with authorities and return home immediately, or break the law and stand by his sister. He chooses the latter.
Elsewhere in Helsinki, a slimy salesman called Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) makes it big in poker and decides to open a restaurant. His successive wins are nothing short of hilarious. Picture the scene: a load of leathery faced men in suits, gathered around a poker table, moving just enough to turn over a few cards. These old gits aren’t to be messed with, but Kaurismäki makes it very difficult for us to take them seriously. Before long, they cordon on to Wikström’s cheating, but luckily he escapes unharmed. This story is the second in our dual narrative, with no obvious or immediate connection to Khaled’s plight. But then the two unsuspecting men meet under the most bizarre of circumstances.
Wikström’s restaurant makes Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz, on account of its shoddy furnishings and lifeless staff. A chef hovers in a kitchen doorway, smoking away without a care in a world, while a dog sleeps in the corner. Much to Wikström’s displeasure, they come with the package. His initial attempts to whip them into shape aren’t exactly greeted with smiling faces. There’s the awkward question of wages, not to mention the embarrassing quizzing over how many guests the restaurant receives. This is deadpan comedy at its finest, a style all too typical of Kaurismäki.
During a routine inspection of the restaurant, Wikström discovers Khaled hiding out back. Now, naturally you’d assume a man like Wikström would turf Khaled out, no questions asked. And try he does, but the immigrant responds by punching him in the face. Returning blows, Wikström and Khaled enter into a sort of playground fight which leaves both with bloody noses. Next minute, Khaled gets offered a job in the restaurant. Male bonding is often described as being rather Neanderthal, and that’s exactly what Kaurismäki appears to be poking fun at here. Somewhere between courage and desperation, Khaled earns the restaurant owner’s respect and trust. He receives a regular income and a uniform, even a place to stay. Who would have thought Wikström was capable of such goodness.
Thereafter, the restaurant goes from one disaster to another. Not satisfied with the current theme, Wikström decides to go Japanese and puts sushi on the menu. Being the idiot that he is, he gives the restaurant a complete Japanese makeover, including the purchase of new uniforms and furnishings. Reinvention in the restaurant game is tricky and, predictably, this one falls flat on its face.
As chance would have it, a bus load of oriental tourists arrive on the very night of the transformation. But, instead of being treated like kings, they’re made to eat rubbish. When the kitchen runs out tuna, Wikström tells the chef to serve herring. The wasabi will hide the taste, he remarks. The tacky décor and Maneki-neko (beckoning cats) only add to the cringiness of the place.
Along the way, Wikström receives a visit from the police. Desperate to hide Khaled and the dog, the team clamber the two of them into a toilet together. You can’t help but laugh at the robotic answers they give to the inspector’s questions. Anyone with an ounce of sense would know they’ve something to hide.
Unperturbed by his new job, Khaled continues searching for his sister. Discovering her whereabouts, he enlists the help of Wikström to arrange for a truck to pick her up. However silly the movie comes across, it retains a serious tone in Khaled’s struggle. His journey is one of many undergone by refugees on an almost daily basis. His sister arrives into Finland hidden in the underside of the truck, cold and distraught looking.
Desperate to keep her by his side, Khaled asks her to seek asylum, on the basis that the two will start a new life together. Only, things don’t quite go to plan. A racist thug, who earlier had a run-in with Khaled, eventually catches up with him and stabs him in the ribs. The attack leaves Khaled bleeding to death at the entrance to his home. By the time Wikström arrives, however, Khaled is nowhere to be seen. All that remains are a few drops of blood leading from the door to the bed.
Predictably, Khaled surfaces just in the nick of time. Not even death is going to get in the way of him meeting his sister, ahead of her trial. Try as he does to hide wounds, however, it’s clear he’s suffering.
In a bittersweet closing scene, Khaled is seen sat on park bench by the waterfront, facing the sun and stroking the restaurant’s dog. He’s smiling, perhaps content with having achieved his aim of locating his sister. While no explicit depiction of his death is given, there’s everything to suggest it’s on its way.
The Other Side of Hope, as the name suggests, is a bleak sort of tale, visually, employing faded colours and poked-faced expression. More a character study than a drama, it matches dismal settings with dismal personalities to create an overall feeling of despair. Slow, meditative shots provide a careful, artistic focus of the subjects involved, including those the peripheries.
Kaurismäki’s Helsinki has all the makings of a city stuck in the past: everybody drinks, smokes and wears vintage clothing, while retro music blares out in the background. Even the dialogue’s stripped back-to-basics. A deliberate attempt has clearly been made to tell a powerful story in as unflashy a fashion as possible. The payoff? A sombre work of art, full of human touches, and well balanced.
Catch The Other Side of Hope in UK cinemas now.