Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope revisits worthy themes close to the director’s heart, but lacks the daring to take his filmmaking to new heights.By Christos Tsiolkas.
‘The Other Side of Hope’
The Other Side of Hope, the new film by Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki, is about two ostensibly very different men. The first is Khaled, played by Sherwan Haji, a Syrian refugee who is desperate to find asylum in Europe. The other is Waldemar, played by Sakari Kuosmanen, an elderly travelling salesman whose dream is to open a restaurant and bar of his own. When we first see Khaled he materialises from a heap of coal having stowed away on a cargo ship that has berthed in Helsinki. For Waldemar, the grimness from which his character emerges is metaphorical. We see him framed within the gloom of an ugly apartment, his wife chain-smoking. He takes off his wedding ring and leaves. His wife stubs out her cigarette on the ring. Even before a word of dialogue is spoken, we know that we are seeing men at a moment of transformation in each of their lives.
Kaurismäki is playfully teasing in prolonging the moment when the two men meet. Though Kuosmanen is a talented comic actor, I found those early scenes involving Waldemar almost intrusive, in that it is Khaled’s story that is much more involving. The first thing Khaled does, after showering and cleaning himself up at a railway bathroom, is go to the local police station and apply for asylum. From that first interview in the cop shop to his arrival at the refugee processing centre to his burgeoning friendships with other asylum seekers and to the seemingly endless round of interviews he must undertake to persuade the authorities to accept his claims, The Other Side of Hope is suspenseful and convincing.
Kaurismäki’s aesthetics have remained largely unchanged over 30 years as a director. His camera rarely moves. Nor do his actors. He frames his characters in static shots, within interiors that on first glance seem banal and unattractive, but that always have a touch of the surreal to them. This intrusion of the comic absurd in his films owes as much to his performers as it does to his framing and the editing, with dialogue largely delivered deadpan. There’s a coldly comic gambling scene early on in the film, where Waldemar wins the money that allows him to open his restaurant. Watching it, I felt as if I had been here before with Kaurismäki, that as a director he is treading water. But in those early scenes involving Khaled, this deliberately distanced mise en scène works to accentuate the cruelty of the situation in which he finds himself. It’s as if both interrogators and the interrogated know a bizarre game is being played in the ritual of inquisition and testament that is a refugee’s lot in applying for asylum. The earlier gambling scene now makes sense. Khaled, too, is depending on luck to make his dreams come true.
Once the two narratives merge with the men meeting, the tension in the film dissipates. In part, this is because the plotting seems contrived, and the choices the men make seem arbitrary and not very credible. The older man offers the fugitive refugee a job in the restaurant but we are given no clear reasons for Waldemar taking such a risk, or why the other workers are willing to shelter the Syrian. Kaurismäki is also the scriptwriter and I assume it is his humanist instincts that have guided the choices he is making as both writer and director. As in his earlier film, 2011’s Le Havre, he is firmly on the side of the angels, of those who do offer compassion and refuge to the asylum seekers. The instinct is admirable, of course, but in this film Khaled, as written, and as played by Haji, is such a saintly figure that it is difficult to maintain any dramatic interest in his story. Haji plays him with a certain diffidence that counters some of the pious elements of the writing, but that isn’t enough to overcome the sentimentality that creeps into the film. Right from that opening shot of him in the coal bin there is a Chaplinesque quality to Khaled and it’s obvious that for Kaurismäki he is the classic Fool, a man who is dealt much cruelty but is buoyed by his determination to remain a good man whatever his travails. There’s also a nod to Buster Keaton and to Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot in Haji’s impassive playing.
I mention these three classic filmmakers because they are obvious influences on Kaurismäki – for their humanism, but also, especially in the case of Keaton and Tati, for their pivotal roles in striving to create a near abstract aesthetic of comedy. These were filmmakers whose development across their careers saw them continually refining and challenging their artistic practice. Kaurismäki’s trouble is that he lacks a similar curiosity. The first film of his I saw was Leningrad Cowboys Go America, in 1989, and it did have a sense of genuine strangeness to it. That film, and many of his subsequent films, have been compared to the early work of Jim Jarmusch and even to early David Lynch. In that 1980s period, they all shared a puckish post-punk sensibility and a love for rockabilly fashion. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in Kaurismäki’s work that can compare to the aesthetic and storytelling risks that Jarmusch, for example, took in films such as Dead Man or Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. There is no doubting the integrity of Kaurismäki’s politics, not only in the subjects he chooses but also in the positions he has taken as an openly socialist filmmaker. But in terms of his continuing growth as a filmmaker, there’s no sense of progress between Leningrad Cowboys Go America and The Other Side of Hope. As a filmmaker, that means he’s become deeply conservative.
That’s a harsh judgement and it shouldn’t militate against some of the genuine pleasures in this film, particularly in the first half. There’s always charm and moments of skewed whimsy in Kaurismäki’s films. But he has been here before and he did it better in Le Havre. That film took as its subject the plight of the refugee and also championed the people who sheltered them. But in Le Havre he was purposefully referencing the Resistance films of World War II, Hollywood films such as Casablanca, and also the dazzling period of prewar classic French cinema, especially Marcel Carné’s Le Quai des brumes, also set in Le Havre. In paying homage to that period, Kaurismäki’s conservative nostalgia made sense and didn’t deflect from the urgency of his theme, from the wretched conditions facing asylum seekers in contemporary Europe. The humanist characters of Le Havre seemed genuinely heroic and the links Kaurismäki made between resistances across the generations resonated. It felt clear-eyed rather than sentimental.
The Other Side of Hope lacks an equivalent grounding in genre or in history. It makes perfect sense why left-wing and progressive filmmakers are attracted to the theme of asylum. The condition of the asylum seeker is the burning issue of our age. I am being deliberate in my choice of adjective: it’s a theme that ignites passion and fury, and makes the artist want to convey their outrage at the continual inhumanity meted out to the refugee around the globe. It may be that for the moment it is the documentary form that is best suited to conveying such purpose. But even within documentary, Manichean conceptions of good and evil risk the danger of sentimentality. Throughout The Other Side of Hope, the refugees are invariably childlike and innocent. There’s kindness and good grace in the film but it infantalises Khaled. I think the theme, and the story, deserve better. Sometimes, good intentions are not enough.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Hope deflated". Subscribe here.