Over the past 35 years and more than a dozen feature films, Aki Kaurismäki has maintained, along with cinematographer Timo Salminen, a distinctive aesthetic that uses high-contrast lighting, close-ups, and stoic faces to achieve a deadpan style perched somewhere between the sardonic and the severe. The Other Side of Hope upholds that standard, and follows on the heels of Le Havre, the writer-director’s 2011 film about a young Gabonian refugee on the run in the titular port city, with the tale of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland. Kaurismäki has spoken of this film as being the second in a planned “refugee trilogy,” with the third shooting location as yet undetermined. Based on the dip in quality from Le Havre to The Other Side of Hope, though, one may wonder if Kaurismäki hasn’t already exhausted the material, especially since this new film hits comparable narrative beats without the same specificity as its predecessor.
Whereas Le Havre established the citizenry of the northern French port city at its center prior to the arrival of several refugees, The Other Side of Hope plunks Khaled into the opening scene as he’s ostensibly dropped from a large crane grab into a container of coal. He subsequently finds his way to a police station where he both asks for asylum and says he’s searching for his lost sister, whom he believes to be somewhere nearby. Intercut with these events are snapshots from the apparent mid-life crisis of Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged Finnish man who’s leaving his wife, quitting his business as a salesman, and embarking upon a new career as a restaurateur.
As throughout his oeuvre, Kaurismäki utilizes sight gags as a source of comedy, though a few of the punchlines here are curiously tone deaf. After Khaled emerges from the filthy coal in the opening scene, he’s framed to highlight that he’s wearing what amounts to blackface. At Wikström’s restaurant, which starts making sushi in a moment of crisis, the Finnish chef is dressed in an apron and bandana, as if to mimic the attire commonly worn by an itamae. It’s perplexing why Kaurismäki feels compelled to call upon racial passing and cultural appropriation as sources of momentary, cheap comedy, especially considering that these are significant issues in ongoing conversations about the representation of difference.
That Khaled and Wikström will cross paths in a significant way seems assured, yet Kaurismäki confines himself to less intricate narrative developments in this film by focusing its back half on the inner workings of Wikström’s newly acquired restaurant. Khaled is absorbed into that story thread (he winds up hiding out in the restaurant just as the Gabonian boy hid out in the home of an elder national in Le Havre), which is a missed opportunity for Kaurismäki to take the specificity of Khaled’s case, given that he’s a man in his 20s and not a teen, and conceive of an altogether different set of circumstances.
The film, though, isn’t without its insights. The running of a restaurant, with its paperwork, regulation hoops, and housing of undocumented workers (Kaurismäki regular Ilkka Koivula plays a waiter who, according to the fire inspector, doesn’t look Finnish), parallels the machinations of Finnish immigration services, which treat Khaled and other asylum seekers as cases rather than faces. Herein lies Kaurismäki’s sharpest critique of a government—one that’s run like a business—whose legal systems necessarily cease to provide civil resources for those in need of assistance. Kaurismäki depicts the intricacies and sporadic incompetence of Wikström’s restaurant for laughs, whereas those same details in governance, because they’re dealing with peoples’ lives, constitute the film’s central dramatic anchor.
Despite these thoughtful comparisons between forms of management, The Other Side of Hope feels thin when focusing on Khaled, whose initially absurd arrival gives way to a more grounded presentation of his daily life and future aspirations, like the fact that he drinks an occasional beer, smokes cigarettes, loves his sister, and wants a job just like everyone else. Kaurismäki seems disinterested in complicating Khaled as an individual; instead, the man’s refugee status, and the implications it carries regarding his ethnicity and the possibility of European acceptance, stands in entirely for his personality.
All of Kaurismäki’s films reveal him to be a dyed-in-the-wool humanist, but his best films, like Ariel and Le Havre, also layer his philosophical ideals with networks of meaning that crossover into both politics and film history. Le Havre, given its location and character names, makes reference to the legacy of colonialism that can be found at the margins of poetic realist films such as Julien Duvivier’s Pépé Le Moko and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows, the latter of which is also set in Le Havre. If Le Havre worked as a peculiar sort of fairy tale, one which has its roots planted firmly in the contexts of ongoing social conversations on immigration and sovereignty, The Other Side of Hope fulfills the vague sense of its aspirational title as a film limited in scope and led only by the guidance of its maker’s skeptical positivity.