By Liam Lacey
Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki — who arrived on the global scene almost 30 years ago with his deadpan 1989 mockumentary road movie, Leningrad Cowboys Go America — tends to do the same thing with small variations in each film but in a way that’s entirely his own. From the static camera, the deadpan characters, the curl of cigarette smoke to the faded colours on the walls, he takes you into a place where the humour is so dry it's barely distinguishable from misery.
The Other Side of Hope, set in Helsinki, is an old-fashioned film making a topical plea for compassion during European's ongoing refugee crisis. Echoing his 2011 film Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope is about the bond that forms between a middle-aged curmudgeon, Wikström (Kaurismaki standby Sakari Kuosmanen) and a young Syrian illegal worker Khaled (Sherwan Haji) who has fled his country’s civil war.
After emerging from a coal freighter in blackface, Khaled requests asylum and tells the horrific story of his escape to the po-faced immigration agents, who listen politely, and then inform him he must be deported.
Instead, he manages to escape and finds a job at a dive restaurant called The Golden Pint. The new owner is Wikström, a glum middle-aged shirt salesman who, after a successful night at the poker table, has enough money to go into the restaurant business. He leaves behind his alcoholic wife (Kaija Pakarinen) and life on the road.
The meeting of two men, each reinventing himself, is the central mechanism of The Other Side of Hope. For Khaled, that means keeping ahead of the law and a gang of racist skinheads. (He's warned by a friend not to smile while walking the streets of Helsinki or people will think he's crazy.) For Wikström, his challenge is managing his eccentric staff, and turning his bar into a tony sushi restaurant.
The Other Side of Hope is less biting than the director's other recent films (Le Havre, The Man Without a Past) but the droll humanity his work occupies always feels worth revisiting. As a model, think of Charlie Chaplin’s empathy for waifs and tramps, transmitted through Buster Keaton’s stone-faced glare.
The Other Side of Hope. Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. Starring Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen. Opens December 8 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.