The Other Side of Hope ★★★½

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In considering The Other Side of Hope, one thing has to be said: the world changes, but fundamentally Aki Kaurismäki doesn't change. That's not to say that his films are somehow insensitive to the times or insulated inside their own aesthetic bubble. Far from it. Rather, we could think of Kaurismäki's film style as something that simply exists, like iron or xenon. Then his films serve as experimental models in which "Kaurismäkianism" itself is the control group. How does it respond to the problem of poverty, or Shakespeare, or the silent cinema? What does the form do when pressed into the service of an urban landscape study, or brought to bear on the question of immigration? And so on. Even though I've cited John Peel's statement regarding The Fall before, in reference to Hong Sang-soo, it might be even more applicable to Kaurismäki: "Always different, always the same."

The Other Side of Hope is Kaurismäki's first film since 2011's La Havre, and in some respects it is the logical follow-up. The previous film was about the plight of Africans struggling to arrive in France, specifically focusing on a group of French citizens who worked together to harbor a young immigrant and prevent his deportation. (Always attuned to history, Kaurismäki made it clear that some of the folks hiding the young boy were acting from their living memories of the German occupation. Others were just exhibiting basic decency.) Six years later, immigration to Europe from various African nations (particularly wartorn areas such as Eritrea and South Sudan) is still an active concern, but right now the eyes of the world are on the Syrian refugee crisis.

For a filmmaker with a well-established style to apply his or her formal template to Syrian immigration might seem opportunistic, but there's nothing disingenuous about The Other Side of Hope. That's because the Kaurismäki style is indelibly stamped with a globalist humanism that regards such values as respect, loyalty, and kindness as intrinsic to our biological makeup. It's not a naive, rose-colored universe. People have their suspicions and prejudices in Kaurismäki's cinema, but those are deformations of the human character which are quickly overcome through shared experiences: music, drink, sardonic humor, and mutual affection for dogs. (As in Le Havre, bigots exist in The Other Side of Hope, but they are shown to be virtual disfigurements of the basic human animal, warped by hate.)

Other Side is the story of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian who has arrived in Finland after an incredibly long and dangerous journey. Initially travelling with his sister (Niroz Haji), the two were separated at a border checkpoint, and now he is more concerned with finding her than with his own well-being. (As we learn early on, the rest of their once-large family has been killed.) In an interesting directorial decision, Kaurismäki chooses to have Khaled report to a police station rather than hide, so he enters the refugee holding system. (If Kaurismäki's depiction is even somewhat accurate, Finland treats its detainees far better than most Western nations.) It is only when his petition is denied that Khaled goes rogue.

This is where his story joins with the secondary plot that Kaurismäki has been articulating parallel to Khaled's. Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) is a clothing wholesaler who has decided to get out of the business and purchase a local bar / eatery, the Golden Pint. As he struggles to get the place going, negotiating with the old employees and finding his sea legs, he discovers Khaled out behind the dumpsters with a makeshift bedroll. After telling him to clear out, Wikström decides to offer him a job and a place to stay.

For a film about such a hot-button political issue, The Other Side of Hope may strike some viewers as strangely low-key. Granted, Kaurismäki's films are never given to grand gesture, with their deadpan acting and still, sturdy compositions. But it is important to note that much like Le Havre, the film is poised in an unusual ideational space, part fable and part social drama. In most cases, Kaurismäki is an artist who offers his own version of speculative fiction. "What if people acted from a place of basic decency?"

In this regard, the decidedly downbeat conclusion to The Other Side of Hope is perhaps surprising. And yet, Khaled came to Europe to sacrifice for his loved ones, not to prosper himself. This is "the other side of hope," that others after you will have it better than you did. And in its conclusion, Kaurismäki's latest seeks to reverse the dominant discourse on the anti-immigrant right. No one is coming to your country to take something. They are coming to give.

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