I remember well when I watched Aki Kaurismäki’s “Le Havre” (2011) during one cold evening of 2011 December. I watched it at a local arthouse theater which was as freezing as the outside, and I remember well when the theater manager offered me and other few audiences blankets before the screening. Once the movie started, I found myself gradually warmed by the gentle humanity glimpsed from its many wonderfully deadpan moments, and I later chose it as one of the best films of that year.
In his latest film “The Other Side of Hope”, Kaurismäki seems to return to his usual drab and cheerless mode which is mainly exemplified by “Shadows in Paradise” (1986), “Ariel” (1988), and “The Match Factory Girl” (1990), but this is another likable work which shares many traits with “Le Havre”. Like “Le Havre”, the movie willingly tackles immigrant issue, and it is engaging to watch how it makes some social/political points while effortlessly going back and forth between humor and pathos with its adamantly deadpan attitude.
In the beginning, the movie introduces us to Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), a young Syrian man who sneaks into Finland via a coal ship coming from Poland. After getting out of a pile of coal in the ship, he instantly gets off from the ship, and the he wanders around the city for a while until he finds a place where he can wash himself before presenting himself as an exile to the Finnish Police.
After he is sent to a temporary shelter for many immigrants who are as desperate as him, Khaled is interviewed by an official from the Finnish Immigration Service, and we get to know a bit more about him. He used to work as a mechanic in Aleppo, but he lost not only his home but also many of his family due to the ongoing civil war in Syria, so he decided to get out of Syria along with his sister, who unfortunately got separated from him when they were in Hungary after going through Balkan.
Khaled hopes that he will soon be in touch with his sister once he is allowed to settle in Finland, but, not so surprisingly, he continues to be stuck in the facility along with his fellow immigrants including an Iraqi guy named Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon). who quickly becomes his friend during their first encounter. As a guy who stays there longer than him, Mazdak willingly provides some help and advice to him, and Khaled appreciates his generosity especially when he helps Khaled contact a cousin who may find where Khaled’s sister is.
In the meantime, the movie also observes the ups and downs in its other main character’s drab daily life. Not long after his unceremonious separation from his wife, Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) decides to quit his clothing salesman career, and we see how this sullen middle-aged guy goes through his retirement process. After selling every product in his storage to his buyers (one of them is played by Kati Outinen, who was memorable in “The Match Factory Girl”), he immediately goes to an illegal gambling place with all the money he has, and he comes to win a huge amount of money. While everything is calm and quiet during that scene, Kaurismäki subtly raises the level of tension beneath the surface, and we are amused a lot at times as Waldemar and other characters in that scene keep their faces straight to the end.
With the money he won from his gambling, Waldemar tries to start a restaurant business, but he turns out to be far less lucky in that. The restaurant purchased by him is quite a lousy one, and it has only three employees. The previous owner did not even pay the employees their delayed wage before running away with the cash he received from Waldermar, and the employees are not exactly model ones to say the least. When a customer happens to come into their restaurant at one point, they give him a pretty curt service which made my eyes roll.
These two plotlines in the film eventually converge when Khaled escapes the facility and then comes to be hired by Waldermar, who actually met him during a brief scene around the beginning of the movie. Seeing that Khaled really needs help, Waldermar decides to protect and help Khaled as much as he can, and his employees go along with that without any complaint because, well, he is their boss.
While never overlooking the harsh reality which is mainly represented by a trio of racist thugs, movie keeps providing amusing deadpan scenes to savor. For drawing more customers, Waldermar and his employees try to do something different, and all I can tell you is that I was tickled a lot by the unexpectedly hilarious failure of their attempt.
Firmly sticking to the overall low-key mood surrounding them, the main cast members of the movie are effective in their respective roles. While Sherwan Haji brings quiet poignancy to his character, Sakari Kuosmanen is also solid in his stoic performance, and so are the other performers including Ilkka Koivula, Janne Hyytiäinen, Nuppu Koivu, Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon, and Kaija Pakarinen, who has a brief but lovely moment as Waldermar’s estranged wife.
“The Other Side of Hope”, which received the Silver Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival early in this year, may demand some patience from you due to its slow narrative pacing and extremely dry sense of humor, but it is sort of endearing in the end, and you will come to reflect on its rather ambiguous finale for a while. I still do not know how to interpret the finale, but one line in the movie comes to my mind: “Dying is easy, but I’d like to live.”