Iconic Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki made a name for himself in the late 1980s with Leningrad Cowboys Go America, thus setting the tone for a string of films with a distinctive Scandinavian deadpan absurdity. His latest continues the trend that will please the faithful but will unlikely increase his fan base.
Recently a strong sense of humanity has enriched Kaurismäki’s work, most noticeably his last film Le Havre – about an African boy who arrives in the French port city by cargo ship, and the elderly shoe shiner who welcomes him into his home.
The Other Side of Hope has the same juxtaposition of a humanistic theme conveyed with dark, dry humour. The incongruous elements worked a treat in Le Havre, but the same parts don’t add up the same sum total this time and will feel especially counterintuitive to those unfamiliar with the director’s work.
Kaurismäki has always used dialogue sparingly and a scene early on in Hope is a perfect example of economy of narrative. A middle-aged man enters a drab looking kitchen, his wife is sitting at the table smoking a cigarette. He drops his house keys on the table, then takes off his wedding ring and places that with his keys. She takes the ring and puts it in the ashtray and then stubs her cigarette out. He leaves.
Elsewhere, in echoes of Le Havre, a Syrian refugee smuggles himself into town by hiding in a freighter full of coal. His attempts to stay in Helsinki are scuppered when he is deemed ineligible for citizenship and has been told he must return to Aleppo.
The paths of the two men converge when the former takes over a failing restaurant and he hires the latter. Wikström, the restauranter, gives Khaled a place to live and helps him get on his feet, while Khaled helps to bring in the diners, despite the very questionable cuisine on offer.
Like all Kaurismaki films, the story is simple and the delights are in the distinctive visual style, which includes a kind of 1950s colour palette, flat lighting and bare set staging.
The cast is also a constant, the director’s usual alter-ego, Sakari Kuosmanen takes on lead duties as usual, and he’s as po faced as ever. Kati Outinen is his distaff counterpart again, although she has less to do here. There’s even the requisite cute pooch, although this time the family dog Laika has been replaced by a winsome terrier.
It’s up to Sherwan Haji as the hapless Khaled to bring a beating heart to the film, and he is suitably sympathetic, quietly keeping his dignity through adversity while adhering to the film’s restrained tone.
Fans will likely be pleased, while the uninitiated may be a bit bemused, and possibly even a bit bored by the film’s languid pacing.
Even for fans, this is not the Finnish auteur’s strongest work. Perhaps that will come with his next project, the final part of this port city trilogy.
The Other Side of Hope is currently in national release
This review was first published in July 2017 when The Other Side of Hope screened at the Scandinavian Film Festival
Richard Leathem @dickiegee