The Other Side of Hope begins with a startling sequence. A man emerges from a pile of coal on a ship in the middle of the night, picks up his sack, disembarks, and walks the streets of a city, wiping off the coal dust as best he can. He goes to a police station, hands the desk officer his passport, and announces he is seeking asylum.
Aki Kaurismäki, the film's writer-director, has made an international name for himself — often in collaboration with his brother Mika — by creating wry comedies such as the Leningrad Cowboys series and Le Havre, many of them set in their native Finland and most of them whimsical to the point of absurdism. Kaurismäki reportedly counts classic French filmmaker Marcel Carné as one of his biggest influences, but we might as well throw in Jacques Tati. The typical Kaurismäki vignette is replete with Tati-esque sight gags involving taciturn-but-flamboyant characters who rarely stop to explain themselves.
However, Kaurismäki does not live inside a bubble. He's as aware as anyone else in Europe about the tide of refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa, each one of them with a compelling story. We could say that The Other Side of Hope is his comment on that worrisome phenomenon — but outfitted, as usual, with his distinctive sense of humor.
The man who stowed away in the heap of slag is Khaled (played by Sherwan Haji), a Syrian bombed out of Aleppo, his family killed, his sister lost en route north. Khaled's number one goal, alongside trying to establish himself in Helsinki, is to find his missing sister. But there are hurdles to overcome. We feel as if we've entered a hole in time, Khaled's situation is very 21st-century, but everything else, from the faces of the immigration guards to the buildings he passes through, gives the impression of a forgotten 1950s Soviet Bloc backwater.
Meanwhile in another part of town, a middle-aged man in a suit is loading a bundle of clothing into his shiny black sedan. Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) the salesman is closing out his stock and quitting business. Coincidentally, he wins a small fortune gambling. With his newfound stake, getting into the restaurant game looks attractive to Wikström — the sort of restaurant, it turns out, where a newcomer like the stoic Khaled might find work. The plot machinery churns, amidst a flurry of Kaurismäki comic mishaps.
The restaurant is a depressing dump with a sad-faced staff, a place for a sardines-and-beer lunch, with seriously ancient songs on the jukebox and a Jimi Hendrix poster incongruously hanging on the wall. But it soon gets up to speed, as in hilariously awful Japanese dishes, à la salted herring with wasabi. We meet Calamnius the doorman (Ilkka Koivula), Khaled's fellow immigrant Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon), and a little dog named Koistinen that lives in the kitchen.
Most importantly, aside from a racist skinhead, no one Khaled meets intends him any actual harm. He isn't automatically vilified and rejected. People enjoy the mournful "oriental" music he plays on the buzuq. The cafes are filled with old timers singing Finnish folk songs about flying cranes. We might recognize the settings as Euro-nostalgia, but to the anxious newcomers the tolerance is refreshing and hopeful. So is this gratifying movie, the ideal holiday entertainment for those unafraid of subtitles.
The Other Side of Hope
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki. With Sherwan Haji and Sakari Kuosmanen. Now playing.