In troubling times, film is a crucial form in visualising the world’s issues, expressing anger over the shortcomings of governments and widespread ignorance, and sympathy to the victims of violence and greed. To do this, many filmmakers take a realist approach, attempting to highlight the horror and injustice of the times by grounding them with brutal accuracy, allowing them to shed light on the truth. Finnish director and screenwriter Aki Kaurismäki takes a different approach, playing out one of the most relevant injustices the world is facing as a deadpan comedy.
Since 2015, millions of refugees have fled war-torn countries primarily in the Middle-East, seeking asylum in European countries. This has led to huge divisions between countries, as many are unwilling to accept masses of migrants, and divisions within countries, the influx of Muslim immigrants along with the threat of Islamic extremism fuelling racism among nationalists. These spreading racial divisions are in part, what has sparked Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidency, about as stark a change as possible considering the politics of his predecessor Barack Obama. This clearly isn’t an issue to be taken lightly, and somehow Kaurismäki manages to tackle the crisis through humour, while still conveying the appropriate seriousness, grievance, and disdain toward those that encourage hatred.
The Other Side of Hope primarily follows two characters leading very different lives. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a mechanic from Syria, forced to flee from his home country after returning home from work one day to find his house obliterated by a missile of unknown origin, along with the majority of his residing family. Arriving in Finland to seek asylum, it is immediately clear that Khaled is a kind and honest man, retaining patience and respect despite the devastating tribulations he has had to experience. Although he is homeless, miserable, and grief-stricken, he remains driven and determined to settle somewhere, so that he can focus his efforts on finding his sister who he was separated with on the journey from Syria to Finland. Somewhat solemn and quiet, Sherwan Haji does a fine job of playing a man who has lost everything, despite not being able to express too much emotional range as a result of Kaurismäki’s deadpan direction.
Alongside this storyline comes Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), an older Finnish man who, upon moving out of his home due to marital issues, decides to buy a restaurant. Similarly to Khaled, he is quiet and tends to keep to himself, but he has a confident and assertive streak, testing big shot poker players despite being the little fish, and not allowing unfriendly or incompetent people to impede his endeavours. His slightly grumpy demeanour would likely make most filmmakers treat him very differently, perhaps giving him a redemptive storyline in which he develops compassion for others. Wikström owes nothing to anybody, and has no real motivation or gain from helping people less fortunate than him, especially considering he is hardly where he would like to be in life. But thanks to Kaurismäki’s beautifully optimistic outlook on the human race, Wikström is unconditionally kind and morally admirable despite having reason to be cynical considering many of the people around him.
These two storylines collide when Wikström discovers Khaled sleeping outside next to the restaurant’s bins. After an immediate scuffle in which a downtrodden and demoralised Khaled punches Wikström in the face, no bad blood is held, and Wikström turns his attention to helping Khaled, now on the run from border control, without hesitation. The two characters are portrayed as complete equals, even though Wikström goes to the ends of the Earth to assist Khaled, who has absolutely nothing to return any favours with and is not expected to. Another character that helps Khaled with no reason to other than friendship is Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), an Iraqi asylum seeker living in the same refugee centre. He too has been separated with his family, unable to afford the cost of bringing them over to Finland. After befriending Khaled, his usefulness comes in the form of his mobile phone, the only form of communication Khaled has with his cousin, who can provide updates on whether or not his sister has been found. Mazdak goes out of his way to reunite Khaled with his family and holds no bitterness in the fact that he cannot be reunited with his own.
A clear message that Kaurismäki offers is in the ways that these characters are rewarded for their good deeds. While they receive nothing material, and Khaled does nothing to compensate their actions, these are the characters portrayed as human. They have emotional depth, and therefore receive their own fulfilment by helping others. They have optimism much like Kaurismäki himself, and therefore their lives have a purpose. Many of the less friendly characters, such as a group of white supremacists, are not characterised; they are simply angry faces, with no real reason for existence other than the hatred they cling onto. Kaurismäki believes that what goes around comes back around, and Wikström ends the film in a much better place than he started, in part due to the connection he has developed with Khaled.
One of the key sources of comedy in the film takes place within the Golden Pint, Wikström’s less-than-stellar restaurant. Much like the rest of the locations, the Golden Pint has a not-quite-real quality, its decor and colour palette having a dollhouse-like aesthetic. Likely holding a poor rating on TripAdvisor, its speciality dish is sardines served in a tin, its staff are all predictably stony and unwelcoming, and there is a stray dog occupying the kitchen. While it doesn’t sound like it could get much worse, Wikström’s bright idea to entice more customers is to hold a sushi night, resulting in a flurry of Japanese diners being served almost inedible chunks of rice bearing equal parts salted herring and wasabi, to mask the taste of salt.
The Other Side of Hope is clearly made by somebody who loves Finland, despite its intrusively ugly side. Showing Finland to be a country that is in many ways unwelcoming to foreigners in need, it is also depicted as a place full of wonderful people who disregard their own matters in favour of bettering the lives of others. Resonating with its audience through compassion to those affected by war, lost in a world they don’t know, Kaurismäki has created a poignant and yet hilarious look at racism and acceptance, at fear and bravery, and the idea that we reap what we sow.
The Other Side of Hope is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD in the UK, and does not currently have a US release date.