Director: Aki Kaurismäki
Screenplay by: Aki Kaurismäki
Starring: Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Ilkka Koivula, Janne Hyytiäinen
Country: Finland, Germany
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
Aki Kaurismäki is a Finnish director who found critical acclaim with his debut feature, an adaptation of Crime and Punishment back in 1983, and has maintained that level of admiration ever since, at least on the festival circuit and in film critic circles. With the quirky musical comedy Leningrad Cowboys Go America he found mild commercial success too and his crowning glory so far has been winning the Grand Prix at Cannes for The Man Without a Past, which is probably his most well known film to date (in the UK at least). Over these 34 years he has stuck largely to his own distinctive film making style, which can be described as a strange mix of Robert Bresson's minimalist approach to storytelling and the offbeat, deadpan humour of Jim Jarmusch (who made a cameo in Leningrad Cowboys Go America and used some of Kaurismäki's regular actors in his own Night on Earth). If ever there was a perfect candidate for proving the auteur theory, Kaurismäki would be it, as his mark can be spotted a mile away and he very rarely deviates from it.
Being married to a Finn, I'm obliged to indulge in any Finnish culture that can be found in the UK, so I'm fairly well versed in Kaurismäki's style, although I've only seen a small handful of his 20 feature films. So of course I had to take up the offer to review his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, not only to keep 'the wife' happy, but because so far I've enjoyed all that I've seen of his work.
Like Kaurismäki's previous film, Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope looks at the hot topic of immigration in Europe but through the director's unique eye. It tells the individual stories of two different characters to begin with. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a young Syrian refugee who has fled his war-torn home and, after hopping from country to country looking for his sister after they got separated at one border, ends up on a cargo boat bound to Helsinki. He decides to do things properly here, after previously avoiding the authorities, and heads to the police station to register himself as an asylum seeker. This doesn't go very well though and he is forced to hide out as an illegal immigrant. Our second narrative concerns Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), an ageing shirt salesman who leaves his wife and decides to sell his stock, gamble the proceeds on a high stakes poker game and use all this cash to open a restaurant. This all goes largely to plan and he ends up being the new owner of a mildly popular but ramshackle bar called the Golden Pint, which comes with a motley crew of staff in with the deal. After a while the two stories intertwine of course, as Wikström decides to help out the hard-done-by Khaled, who's avoiding the authorities and still looking for his sister.
The film successfully treads a delicate balance between social commentary, dry humour and bittersweet drama. In doing so, it perhaps never hits any real highs in any of those categories, so never feels rousingly political, hilarious or profoundly moving, but Kaurismäki isn't one for grand statements. He likes to keep things simple in all aspects of his film making. I've always admired his economic visual storytelling and the introductions to both main characters display this effortlessly. Khaled's face first appears blackened and hidden in a pile of coal (marking a clear symbol of racial issues inherent in the story) and he slips out and cautiously heads off the boat and into a hostel. Wikström is first seen wordlessly removing his wedding ring and placing it with his house keys on the table in front of his wife before driving off with his car full of shirts. His wife quickly drops the ring in her ashtray. Both characters' opening scenes play out near silently and swiftly, setting the scene without frills or unnecessary bombast. I love this type of filmmaking and it's one of Kaurismäki's traits I admire the most. However, I did feel the film was slightly less subtle and economically directed than some of his others. To put across political and character background, more has to be delivered through dialogue than usual and also in a news broadcast which seems like it's from another planet when inserted into Kaurismäki's distinctively stylised world (although that's likely the point).
Speaking of which, the film's look is every bit as beautifully and simply realised as in Kaurismäki's other work. Keeping backgrounds clean and clear with washes of largely pastel hued colours and framing everything precisely in an uncomplicated fashion, it's a minimalist work of art. Kaurismäki's usual minimalist acting style is present too. Performances are kept largely stony-faced, with dialogue delivered in a dry monotone. Most of the actors are Kaurismäki regulars, so are used to this method and fit the roles perfectly. Haji is the revelation though here as (on the IMDb at least) this is his debut film and he more than matches the rest of the cast, displaying just enough subtle emotion to drive the heart and soul of the film, as is required from his character. There's some great use of pop and rock music too, largely through buskers and other performances witnessed by the film's characters.
As much as I admired many aspects of the film though, I couldn't help but feel that this is just Kaurismäki doing what he's always done and has done slightly better elsewhere. In particular, I couldn't help but compare The Other Side of Hope to Le Havre, due to the similar subject matter, and I found the latter had a little more charm and worked better as a cohesive whole whereas a few scenes here felt unnessary. Some of the restaurant scenes in particular, whilst funny, didn't always drive the film forwards.
So it has all the hallmarks of Kaurismäki's best work and is enjoyable and quietly captivating as usual, but it didn't satisfy quite as fully as most of the other (admitedly not that many) titles I've seen from his respected back catalogue. Newcomers to the director will likely get more from The Other Side of Hope (once they settle into his unusual style), but I'm starting to feel he's maybe getting too distinctive for his own good.
The Other Side of Hope is out on 24th July on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Curzon Artificial Eye. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and audio quality was decent.
The only special feature is a music video unfortunately.