Like Roger Federer’s forehand or Jiro Ono’s sushi, Aki Kaurismäki’s deadpan is one of those beautiful things that’s been refined beyond all reason over years of intense practice, eventually approaching a perfection that makes it easy to predict but impossible to deny.
Consider one early bit of business in the Finnish filmmaker’s latest fable, a wordless sequence in which a middle-aged man named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his wife (Kaija Pakarinen). It’s the dead of night. The man is wearing a suit and looking at his reflection in the bedroom mirror; his wife is pouring herself a drink at the tiny table in the corner of their kitchen. A fat cactus sits next to her booze. Wikström saunters over, places his wedding band and apartment keys on the table, and walks out the door. His wife lights another cigarette, picks up the ring, and stubs it into the ashtray. Packed into a small handful of unmoving shots and told without an ounce of outside context, it’s a micro-masterpiece of comic timing, and a perfect example of why Kaurismäki is unquestionably the cinema’s reigning doyen of drollness.
Viewers familiar with his work, however, will know to expect that the scene isn’t as bitter as it seems — that no one in these profoundly sweet films stays mad at each other for very long, or is ever left to go it alone. “The Other Side of Hope,” which finds the artist at the height of his powers (if not quite the peak of his ambition), proves that point with charm to spare.
In one particularly telling moment, after Wikström has sold his clothing business and bought a very shitty restaurant, he experiences a very telling exchange with the hilariously shabby doorman (Ilkka Koivula) that he’s inherited from the previous owner. The employee, a zombified beanpole who looks like Iggy Pop’s burnout younger brother, flatly explains his unfortunate lot in life, to which his new boss replies: “At least you know your place.”
In the films of Aki Kaurismäki, to know one’s place is the greatest happiness of all. And those who don’t — those who have been exiled from their place in the world, or seen it taken from them — have to find a new one before their story can end. And that isn’t something they can do on their own.
Winsome, sweet, and often very funny, “The Other Side of Hope” is more of the same from Kaurismäki, and thank God for that. The second chapter of his unofficial trilogy about port cities, this delightful story about the power of kindness unfolds like a slightly more somber extension of 2011’s “Le Havre,” following new characters down familiar roads. Once again, Kaurismäki begins with a refugee, telling another two-sided seriocomic adventure that twines together an aging local with a much younger refugee. This time, that refugee is a twentysomething Syrian man named Khaled (terrific newcomer Sherwan Haji), who escapes from Aleppo after burying most of his family and sneaks into Finland by stowing away in the cargo hold of a coal freighter. Seeking asylum, he tells the immigrations officer that he’s desperately looking for his sister, and that his own life doesn’t matter. The government agrees, determining that he’s not under sufficient danger in his home country. Khaled disagrees, and slips out of the holding facility with a little help from a friend.
Wikström, meanwhile, is something of a refugee from his own life, even if the circumstances of his escape are considerably less dire (and his fortunes, if his luck at the poker table is any indication, are much brighter). He and Khaled’s separate threads eventually tie into a knot, of course, though it takes much longer than you might expect, and the characters mesh so well that it’s tempting to wish they had crossed paths earlier.
But the path there is a compelling one, full of sly humor and stretched across 35mm compositions that look like the coldest paintings Edward Hopper never made. All the while, Kaurismäki crafts another of his magical Scandinavian idylls, turning this remote stretch of Finland into a light fairy tale land where the constant threat of danger is mitigated by the overwhelming sense of community.
Part Roy Andersson and part Frank Capra, “The Other Side of Hope” lacks the narrative pull of “Le Havre,” as well as the fullness of its emotional bouquet, but it has a cute dog and — in its own wry way — it deepens the director’s recognition of how immigrants and refugees are victimized by their invisibility. “No one wants to see us,” a fellow refugee says to Khaled. “We just cause problems.”
But, as the film argues so warmly, all it takes is for one person to open their eyes, and when Wikström spares a thought for Khaled a world of difference disappears between them. “The Other Side of Hope” may present itself as an explicitly political film, but it resists the idea that decency should be determined by world events, or that where someone comes from should have any bearing on where they feel at home (an idea that’s manifest through an amusing and uncharacteristically broad setpiece in which Wikström reconfigures his restaurant into a very ill-prepared sushi joint).
Even at its most pointed, Kaurismäki’s current trilogy always boils down to kindness (and old men playing rock songs in super depressing bars). His films feel like fairy tales in order to remind you that they probably shouldn’t — in order to illustrate that real life is only one charitable act removed. But if they have to be fairy tales, at least they leave us with a simple moral: Hope is something we all need to have, but can only get from each other.
“The Other Side Of Hope” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.