Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki lights up the Berlin competition with a typically bittersweet response to the migrant crisis.
This might just be the most drolly poetic response to what has been dubbed the “refugee crisis” by journalists and political wags, and it comes as little surprise that Finland’s sardonic sage, Aki Kaurismäki, is the man behind the tiller. The Other Side of Hope traces the intersecting lives of two men, one a Syrian migrant named Khalid (Sherwan Haji) seeking temporary asylum in Helsinki, and the other an impassive, older Finnish gentleman named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) who ditches his alcoholic wife to open a low-rent bar-restaurant.
And though it’s never articulated with the kind lapel-shaking rage that most filmmakers dealing with this subject might lean on, the film lets out a silent scream during a time of unprecedented geopolitical anxiety, where governments are failing to demonstrate basic empathy towards those most in need. But most of all it’s just a beautiful celebration of cultural diversity, from the food we eat to the music we listen to. One of its messages is, never let a Finn try and make you sushi.
From the fat, bright yellow type used in the opening credits, this is unmistakably a film by Kaurismäki. The sad-eyed Khalid emerges from a coal barge, literally having stowed away in the giant coal stores. It initially appears as an absurd and uncomfortable way to travel, but the more of the hero’s sad story that comes to light, the more it becomes shockingly evident that he has probably had to endure much worse. He is on a search for his sister, who was snatched away from him during one of their perilous European border crossings. His life is dedicated to reconnecting with her.
While Khalid represents the displaced migrant humbly searching for safety in foreign climes, Wikström is the well-heeled dreamer who thinks nothing of taking direct action (and a fair amount of risk) when it comes to getting a job done. It would be hard to describe him as a kind person, as his various acts of altruism come as almost logical reactions to each new situation. He extends no charity to anyone, but he works to improve the lives of those around him, knowing that it will stoke his own sense of self worth.
In the way the actors intone lines with a stone face, or seldom display their feelings through body language, Kaurismäki assures that the human body is so expressive (and the camera so sensitive) that empathy will invisibly radiate from the faces of the good eggs. The film is a hymn to this unseen, common sense goodness which everyone has deep inside themselves.
Formally, the film is trimmed of all unnecessary flab, and Kaurismäki, with his long-time partner in cinematographic crime, Timo Salminen, uses every shot to capture a process. Characters are locked tightly within the frame, especially for the super-snug two shots. On the rare occasion that the camera moves a little further away from the subject, the effect is one of subtle transcendence, such as when Wikström sits alone in his restaurant, drinking whiskey as a giant shaft of dusty light scythes through the image.
Aside from its trenchant political underpinnings, this is also a gorgeous ode to the power of cinema itself, with various pronounced nods to Jacques Tati, Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, silent comedy, 1940s noir and all manner of cinephile flotsam and jetsam. Old bushy geezers pile on the soundtrack with soulful rockabilly toe-tappers, and there’s an aside in which Wikström decides to embrace modern trends and open a sushi restaurant that might be the director’s single funniest sequence ever. In fact, the whole thing is a whimsical joy from start to finish, and Kaurismäki now proves to be an old hand when it comes to shifting on a dime between scenes of madness and melancholia.
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