With an estimated 65 million people fleeing for their lives, the global refugee crisis can seem too big, too complex and too out of control to deal with. But in the dark, deadpan farce “The Other Side of Hope,” Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki argues there are different ways to define displaced people, and by helping, we can rescue not just refugees but ourselves.
The impeccably odd Kaurismäki is a largely unacknowledged talent who both befuddles and entrances his viewers. He likes his comedies as dry as Scandinavian crispbread crackers, filming with an unmoving camera in the simplest, most straightforward way possible. He populates the screen with doughy, depressive, everyday Finns haplessly trying to deal with broken relationships, existential guilt and the failure of social institutions to treat people as humans.
His film adds a new perspective to the persistent problem of the world falling apart when a Syrian refugee named Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Helsinki. After his home was wrecked by a rocket, he went stowaway in the belly of a transport ship full of coal. He showers off gallons of soot, enters a police station, politely asks for asylum and waits for a ruling beside a friendly undocumented Iraqi, Mazdak (Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon).
“This is my fifth reception center in a year,” Mazduk announces. During those stops, he has fallen in love with Finland, a country with a history of its own wars and refugees. Mazduk advises Khaled to smile, because the dour Finns deport “melancholics,” apparently not wanting competition on production of their native crop. Still, it’s nice to be noticed at all. When someone asks how he got across so many borders, Khaled says, “Easily. No one wants to see us.”
On the other side of the city is Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling salesman whose life is a collision at the intersection of absurdity and despair. Like Khaled, his home has crumbled in a way, though the cause is marital strife, not military action. He leaves as much as possible in the rearview mirror of his irrationally large 1950s sedan, finds a fortune in startup money in a gambling den and buys the frumpy little Golden Pint restaurant because: Why wouldn’t you?
Through details that should be discovered on the screen, Khaled, who is short, slim and not smiling as his friend advised, meets tall, pudgy, old Wikström at the garbage cans behind the Pint, where they have the briefest of fistfights, creating a bond between them, like cowboys after a saloon brawl.
This kindhearted, unsentimental movie is a good way to celebrate Finland, which celebrated its 100th anniversary as a free nation last week. There are continuing threads of joy and gloom in the film. For no clear reason, great rockabilly guitarists and bands show up and play, as if a 90-minute film needs several spirited intermissions. In a darker tone, a skinhead trio repeatedly confronts Khaled, and we see TV coverage of a bombing attack on a children’s hospital in Aleppo (an event that occurred in 2016).
Framing every episode like a minimalist tableau, Kaurismäki turns weirdos into punchlines and commonplace embarrassments into humiliating humor. Nuppu Koivu’s glum expression reveals how apathetic Pint’s waitress is. As the doorman/maître d’, Ilkka Koivula looks like Adam Driver’s grandfather’s corpse. The inept cook (Janne Hyytiäinen) creates the worst food you have ever seen.
It doesn’t work any better when Wikström tries to reinvent the place as a trendy sushi restaurant and joins the chef to serve a busload of cheerful Japanese tourists. Kaurismäki doesn’t show us their reaction to the food. He doesn’t need to. Filming them from behind as they leave the dining room with the downhearted trudge of a chain gang says it all.
Kaurismäki’s Finland might not be a paradise to visit, but you can see why certain kinds of eccentrics would want to live there.