The elaborate visual gags. The sharply ironic one-liners. The astutely poised compositions. The willfully undemonstrative acting. Those have been the familiar signposts of Aki Kaurismäki’s style since the Finnish auteur burst onto the world-cinema scene in the 1980s. And if his latest, The Other Side of Hope, feels as fresh as it does, it’s because of the memorable set pieces, gags (like a restaurant employee wiping what turns out to be a nonexistent window), and grace notes that spring forth from within the confines of a familiar aesthetic template. The wry and wistful are intertwined throughout the film, as in a scene where a Syrian asylum seeker says, “I don’t understand humor,” when a fake-ID creator asks him if he’s a man or a woman.
Like Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope is, in part, a migrant story, with Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee, finding himself in Helsinki after being forced to stow away in a coal freighter when he found his life being threatened in Poland. But Khaled isn’t painted as an object of pity any more than the African refugee child at the center of Le Havre is. As Khaled seeks political asylum, tries to adjust to life in an unfamiliar country, and keeps hope alive that he will eventually find his long-lost sister, we bear witness to a street-smart character who could conceivably take care of himself one day, even though he eventually does get the help of a white local along the way.
That white local is Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged traveling shirt salesman who, in the film’s other main plot thread, leaves his wife (Kaija Pakarinen), scores big in a poker game, and attempts to reinvent himself as a restaurant owner. As ever, Kaurismäki rhymes his characters’ feelings of alienation to the pastel blues and decaying browns that dominate his mise-en-scène. Life in this vision of Helsinki is bleak, and the people who inhabit the city are certainly no angels: At one point, Wikström is conned into buying a failing restaurant called the Golden Pint, inheriting a trio of underachieving employees who aren’t above exploiting their new boss’s financially charitable side for their own personal gain. And yet, Kaurismäki’s warmhearted but unsentimental humanism is such that he recognizes the capability of hardhearted souls making magnanimous gestures to their fellow man.
There’s wryness in Wikström at one point telling Khaled, “You may be wiser, but I’m older,” but no ironic distance whatsoever to Khaled recounting the horrors he suffered in Aleppo. The tragic gravity of seeing his home and family wiped out in a bombing comes through even as Haji maintains an even-keeled tone in his delivery throughout the harrowing remembrance. And Kaurismäki doesn’t sugarcoat the visceral impact of the outright racism that Khaled encounters in Finland, which includes a beating at the hands of a trio of white supremacists. In such a context, where compassion and cruelty exist in equal measure, one character’s belief that “dying is easy, but I’d like to live” comes across not as an easy homily, but as genuinely hard-fought wisdom.
Berlinale runs from February 9—17.