The Other Side Of Hope


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Other Side Of Hope
"The director has a flare for encapsulating a world of emotion in a single moment."

There’s an ambivalence to the title of Aki Kaurismäki’s latest film – the second in an intended trilogy set in harbour towns and which, so far, have highlighted the theme of migration and refugees. The flipside of hope is generally considered “despair” but what if the other side is not somewhere negative, but where you end up when your hope is realised? These hints of positivity in otherwise dark places are the meat and bread of Kaurismäki’s films, where individuals are shown to be frequently more inclined to acts of kindness than society as a whole. He’s a filmmaker who also takes pleasure in deconstructing stereotypes, to see the person beyond the initial perception.

As with his previous film, Le Havre, the story concerns two people who meet by chance, although not until deep into the runtime. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a young Syrian refugee who has ended up in Finland almost by default after being unfortunately split up from his sister as they fled their homeland. Middle-aged Helsinki resident Wikström (frequent Kaurismäki collaborator Sakari Kuosmanen) is also making a break from his old life, leaving his alcoholic wife, selling his shirt business and, quite literally, gambling on starting a new business without losing his shirt.

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The ‘first world’ problems faced by Wikström as he sets up his business – what to cook, how to manage the crazy staff – are set in humorous absurdist relief against the much bleaker Kafkaesque situation Khaled finds himself in. This has the effect of emphasising the genuine trauma of Khaled’s situation, as he borrows a phone to try to find out where his sister is or lies awake at night, like virtually all the other refugees, thinking about the past. Equally, while it’s easy for the late-night gamblers Wikström visits to suggest “he never plays, who’s afraid”, Khaled’s gamble has been a forced hand with a loaded deck from the start.

After arriving, the Syrian immediately hands himself in, sure that his war experience will lead to asylum. Kaurismäki shows us the system in motion, with even the actors dead-panning their lines, emphasising the rote nature of what is happening, the sense of cogs in a machine. When the two protagonists finally meet, Wikström reaches out a hand of help to Khaled and it’s not long before the comedy and social commentary gather strength as a winning double-act.

There are many pleasures to be gained from watching any Kaurismäki film, not least his fierce control of the colour and look of every scene. The blue of melancholy is the dominant palette for The Other Side Of Hope – whether it’s the tone of a mattress, a navy wallpaper or simply the light - suggesting a constant hint of sadness beneath its comedy moments. The director also has a flare for encapsulating a world of emotion in a single moment. This ability is epitomised here in a scene where, suddenly, a stray dog appears in the kitchen. It’s an absurdly funny and sweet incident, first and foremost. But then in the moment where we think, ‘Oh, isn’t he adorable, they have to keep him’, Kaurisamaki has us, confronted with the possibility that some find it easier to feel sympathy for a pup than a person and, for those people, forcing them to reconsider their stance.

This may be a shade lighter than some of Kaurismäki’s films, but the easy accessibility of his deeper themes is a selling point, if anything - and he's already picked up a director's Silver Bear in Berlin for his trouble. When it comes to minimalist cinema, his has maximum impact.

Reviewed on: 22 Feb 2017
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A middle-aged restaurateur befriends a young refugee.
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Le Havre