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.