The other side of a crisis

Aki Kaurismaki’s film ‘The Other Side of Hope’, focuses on the migrant crisis in Europe

Aki Kaurismaki’s film ‘The Other Side of Hope’ (photo credit: PR)
Aki Kaurismaki’s film ‘The Other Side of Hope’
(photo credit: PR)
It’s rare that a movie that is concerned with issues currently in the headlines is more than that, but Aki Kaurismaki’s touching and funny The Other Side of Hope, which focuses on the migrant crisis in Europe, pulls it off.
The Finnish director is a master of deadpan humor combined with stylized production design and soundtrack – there is a vintage 50s/60s look and sound, which somehow makes Finnish rock songs appealing to everyone – and a strong, unapologetic social conscience. It’s almost as if Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers teamed up, with a touch of early Godard thrown into the mix, but Kaurismaki adds a certain element that is all his own.
The Other Side of Hope, which won the Silver Bear Prize for Best Director at the Berlin Film Festival and which is playing in the Jerusalem Film Festival as well as in theaters throughout Israel, is a fitting followup to Kaurismaki’s 2011 film, Le Havre, which also begins with a migrant escaping at a European port and being taken in by a local. The Other Side of Hope tells a different version of this story, on a slow burn. For the first hour, the two main characters don’t actually meet. The main characters’ parallel journeys and what links them is that neither seems to have any rational reason to hope for anything, but both find the strength to keep going in spite of that.
Sakari Kuosmanen plays Wikstrom, an older Finnish man who, in one of the movie’s first scenes, silently leaves his wife by laying his key and his wedding ring on the kitchen table, where she sits and drinks. Everything he owns is threadbare, except for a magnificent classic car, which he drives around to sell off the stock from his shirt retailing business. In a typical Kaurismaki encounter, he tries to make a sale to a poker-faced blonde store owner, played by Kati Outinen, who has starred in many of the director’s films. She declines, telling him she will soon be retiring to Mexico, where she will “drink sake and dance the hula hula,” after years of living a too-quiet life. Eventually, he buys a failing restaurant, where the staff sleeps on the job standing up and the former owner promises to pay them their past month’s wages, then takes a cab straight to the airport.
The second hero is Khaled (Sherwan Haji) a Syrian refugee who turns up at the port in a container of coal. He has lost most of his family in the civil war and is searching for his sister, from whom he got separated at a European border crossing. He goes to a police station and registers himself as an asylum seeker, where he befriends a fellow refugee who has been there for years. The staff and officials are humane, but his application is turned down and he sneaks away. It’s obvious he will eventually find his way to Wikstrom’s restaurant and he does. Wikstrom and the staff take him in, knowing he is in the country illegally. Khaled immediately becomes part of their bedraggled team, joining in Wikstrom’s energetic but doomed attempts to revitalize the restaurant by adding Asian cuisine and other innovations.
The section where they all come together is funny and masterfully done. The story of their incompetent attempts to overcome the eatery’s mediocrity are interwoven with Khaled’s struggle to elude the authorities and to search for his sister.
The sad-sack Wikstrom and his equally beleaguered employees provide most of the fun in the movie and highlight that while Europe may be the promised land for these refugees, the streets are not exactly paved in gold. I would have liked to have seen Khaled show some quirks, but while Kaurismaki makes gentle fun of his predicament at times, the director never pokes fun at Khaled. Maybe in Kaurismaki’s next film, if he makes another movie about the migrant crisis, he will go a step further and give his migrant hero a personality to match those of his Finnish characters.