Berlin Film Review: ‘The Other Side of Hope’

The Other Side of Hope
Photo by Malla Hukkanen

Aki Kaurismäki has made his version of a '90s Jim Jarmusch film, though beneath the hermetic quirks the topic couldn't be timelier.

There are a lot of things that feed into ’90s nostalgia, and a weariness with the technology of our time ranks high among them. That’s one reason why the films of Aki Kaurismäki, the cheeky minimalist of Finland, now offer a strange kind of retro comfort. He made his first — and still biggest — splash nearly 30 years ago, with the one-two punch of “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” (1989) and “The Match Factory Girl” (1990), and in all that time Kaurismäki has never changed his style: the static camera set-ups and cheap mood lighting (think David Lynch shot with a 100-watt bulb), the unsmiling characters dropping terse zingers between endless long pauses, the whole “Stranger Than Paradise”-in-the-land-of-herring absurdity.

The Other Side of Hope,” the new Kaurismäki film that just premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, is set in Helsinki, a cosmopolitan city that, in this movie, at least, looks like a quaint, dinky, pre-tech-era throwback. People sit in offices in front of tiny manual typewriters, or they stub out cigarettes in kitchens that look like they belong in a Diane Arbus photograph. A restaurant bar serves sardines — right out of the can! — and has a décor that consists of nothing more than bare walls, a few tables and chairs, and a painting of Jimi Hendrix. Is this what a dive in Helsinki really looks like? Or is it just another of Kaurismäki’s bare-bones movie sets? Maybe a bit of both.

Then again, the real nostalgia of “The Other Side of Hope” has to do with the controlled absurdity of its tone. More than ever, it feels like we’re watching Kaurismäki’s version of a ’90s Jim Jarmusch movie, with stray touches of Lynch and Todd Solondz. The film has some acoustic rock & roll numbers performed by mad-dog locals (including one with a homemade box guitar), and those songs give it a charge. “The Other Side of Hope” wants to take you back to a time when quirkiness in cinema felt not cute but bold. Apart from the songs, though, it just feels cute now. If that.

The tone is backward-glancing, but the subject matter is very much of the moment. “The Other Side of Hope” features half a dozen characters who collide and connect, and the most pivotal of them is Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee who has escaped the violence of Aleppo and stowed himself away on a coal freighter, trying to find legal asylum in Helsinki. The movie opens with the image of him emerging from the coal, his face coated with soot (which makes him look like some magical dark mime), and he’s then placed in a cell and interviewed by immigration officials, who tell him he’s going to be deported. Instead, he goes underground and joins the staff of that restaurant.

It’s called the Golden Pint, and it has just been taken over by Wikström, a traveling salesman who unloaded his inventory of 3,000 shirts and multiplied the earnings with a night of high-stakes poker, all to seek a new existence. He’s played by Sakari Kuosmanen, who looks and acts like a gruff, piggy-eyed FBI agent out of a ’50s B movie. But Wikström, who puts the perfect joyless spin on echt-Kaurismäki lines like “I have no friends,” isn’t a bad guy — he gives salary advances to the staff members he’s inherited, like Melartin (Tommi Korpela), the long-haired goateed oddball with the hard-bitten zombie stare who counts, in essence, as the film’s Richard Edson character.

“The Other Side of Hope” is the downtown Finland version of a “progressive” movie, a hipster sermon against anti-immigrant prejudice. Khaled is assaulted by bullies, including a giant skinhead, but he finds a community at the Golden Pint, where the workers, who don’t care about where he’s from, help him to get a fake ID. Yet if the situation and the sentiment seem made for these times, there’s something a little too old-fashioned — too cozy and complacent — about how Aki Kaurismäki has basically concocted a liberal message movie that casts its refugee hero as a saintly victim and invites the audience to pat itself on the back for its enlightened views. There’s no big harm in that, of course. But as long as Kaurismäki presents this tidy a vision (aesthetically and morally), he’ll continue to be an engagingly hermetic art-house curio impersonating an artist.

Berlin Film Review: 'The Other Side of Hope'

Reviewed at Berlinale Palast (Berlin Film Festival), February 14, 2017. Running time: 98 MIN.

Production

A Sputnik Oy production. Producer: Aki Kaurismäki.

Crew

Director, screenplay: Aki Kaurismäki. Camera (color, widescreen): Timo Salminen. Editor: Samu Heikkilä.

With

Sherwan Haji, Sakari Kuosmanen, Janne Hyytiäinen, Ilkka Koivula, Nuppu Koivu, Simon Hussein Al-Bazoon, Niroz Haji, Kaija Pakarinen.

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  1. Ryan says:

    Advice for the critic; “Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, “Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Think about that the next time you sit your butt in a theatre.

  2. eastwest says:

    Aki Kaurismaki is a wonderful and skilled director in his own right, and has been making films for three decades, before Jarmusch. Jarmusch has cited Kaurismaki as an influence, and has appeared in a cameo for one of Kaurismaki’s films. Both have cited Ozu as a major influence.

    Both technically and style-wise, he makes a lot of unique and subtle choices. I believe your opinion is extremely limited in its viewing of film in general. Timo Salminen is a first rate DP–the lighting doesn’t come from a cheap 100 watt bulb, I can tell you that much. The reason people don’t do static camera setups so much nowadays is because it’s harder to do, especially with a single camera. It takes more planning, careful framing, more coverage, and a knowing instinct for how it will cut together. But the results are wonderful, in my opinion. Meditative, staid, painterly, engaging.

    As far as his films go, they make a case for humane behavior in the face of hopelessness. All movies are made to engage your sympathies for someone who isn’t you in a world that isn’t yours. You have to be open to that to begin with.

  3. Niki Finn says:

    “The film has some acoustic rock & roll numbers performed by mad-dog locals (including one with a homemade box guitar).”

    The box guitar is made by Finland’s one of top guitar makers, Kari Nieminen, who guitars are palyed also by Billy Gibbons and Ronnie Wood, to mention a few. And the Mad Dog is Tuomari Nurmio, of Finlands most iconic musicians.

  4. blOwen says:

    “As long as Glibberchunks presents this sub-itelligent a vision (aesthetically and morally), he’ll continue to be an unengagingly hermetic shill impersonating a critic.”

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