Kindness flows beneath pokerfaced demeanors in the fable-like films of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki.
The writer-director’s “The Other Side of Hope” is both a relevant dramedy about Europe’s refugee crisis and an eccentric charmer embracing decency in mean times. You’ll need to shift your sensibilities into droll mode to appreciate the movie, but, in its own idiosyncratic, deadpan way, it’s a holiday-season heart-warmer.
Like Kaurismaki’s previous works, which include “La Vie de Boheme” and “The Man Without a Past,” the film features sad-eyed and saggy-faced characters shortchanged by circumstance. The setting is Helsinki, land of run-down bars, salted herring and aging hipsters playing electric guitars.
Its primary protagonists, two men from highly different backgrounds, are starting new lives.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee, has arrived in Finland after a harrowing journey.
He requests asylum and, at the holding facility, becomes friends with Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), an Iraqi refugee. During his asylum interview, Khaled tells his story of war, death and displacement. He notes that he is looking for his sister, the only other surviving member of his family.
Wikstrom (played by Kaurismaki regular Sakari Kuosmanen), a shirt salesman, packs a suitcase and leaves his wife (Kaija Pakarinen) as she sits silently at a table. On the Kaurismakian tabletop are an empty liquor bottle and a potted cactus.
Wikstrom abandons his career, too, and, with some poker winnings, buys a shabby restaurant, which comes with three unmotivated employees (Ilkka Koivula, Janne Hyytiainen, Taneli Makela) and an extremely limited menu.
As Khaled is pursued by anti-immigrant brutes and struggles to avoid deportation, Wikstrom, albeit after the two men punch each other in the nose, gives Khaled some soup, a job, and a hiding place. A supportive family of sorts, complete with a straight-faced dog, forms.
The narrative is less gripping than that of Kaurismaki’s “Le Havre,” which also addressed immigration and contained a character facing deportation who is helped by unexpectedly kind people.
In particular, a risky mission to reunite Khaled with his sister could be more compelling.
But the movie succeeds as a non-preachy comment on how governments fail to provide refugees with needed assistance and it embraces human goodness and common humanity in a world where anybody could become a refugee.
It’s also a loopily unsentimental valentine to Finland and its denizens.
Entertaining material abounds, from the restaurant’s attempt to pass a health inspection to a disastrous decision to make the place hipper by serving sushi. (You’ll never regard wasabi the same way again.)
Kaurismaki also supplies Finnish rock and roll, provided by veteran singer-songwriter Tuomari Nurmio.
The Other Side of Hope
Starring Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu
Written and directed by Aki Kaurismaki
Running time 1 hour, 38 minutes