Philadelphia Film Festival 2017: Aki Kaurismäki’s ‘The Other Side of Hope’

A Finnish auteur bids adieu

Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s film The Other Side of Hope debuted locally during the Philadelphia Film Festival’s closing weekend. It proved to be a worthy swan song for the auteur director, who announced earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival that this would be his final project.

'The Other Side of Hope' makes a subtle plea to Europeans. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival.)

Fans of dark comedy will delight in the film’s cynical deadpan humor, characteristic of Kaurismäki’s work. However, the plot, which involves the Syrian refugee crisis, has the potential to draw in an entirely different audience.

A middle-aged traveling salesman named Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) risks it all on a high-stakes poker game and starts a new career as a restauranteur. Meanwhile, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee, struggles to remain in Finland after entering the country illegally on a cargo ship. After the two meet in an alleyway behind his new restaurant, Wikström offers Khaled a job and they develop an unlikely friendship. Questions surface about Khaled’s immigration status and tensions rise with members of a white nationalist group.

As a writer/director, Kaurismäki maintains tight control on the overall style of this film, as he has done in his own unique style for three decades. The auteur’s films are imbued with a cynical worldview and full of characters living the worst of their possible realities, looking for a way out. Bad things happen to them for no reason, with little chance for recourse. But this cynical realism also lends itself to dark comedy. Just when things seem like they can’t get worse, they invariably do.

Style from a bygone era

Stylistically, Kaurismäki uses simple compositions to depict everyday situations with an almost cinema vérité approach to capturing action. His use of a muted color palette, static camera shots, and minimal dialogue gives the setting a sense of hopelessness and boredom. His films seem reminiscent of a bygone era of cinema.

Sherwan Haji's Khaled stows away aboard a cargo ship. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival.)
Sherwan Haji's Khaled stows away aboard a cargo ship. (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Film Festival.)

Although it's one of his trademark techniques, the camera lingered too long on certain shots that had no significance to the film’s plot. For example, in one lingering shot, a waitress pours a beer for a character who never appears again.

Some scenes also last longer than they should, as when salesman Wikström drives to menswear retailers trying to offload his merchandise. We see from his perspective how mundane life has become, but this screen time could have been better spent by introducing the two main characters earlier; they don’t meet until around the 40-minute mark.

Once they meet, the film gains charm, although their friendship feels a bit forced. Had they introduced the characters sooner, it would have been easier to convey their closeness. That said, perhaps it was Kaurismäki’s intent to show a relative stranger being kind to the refugee as a sort of model for an ideal Finnish society. Giving this theory some credence, during a Berlin press panel, Kaurismäki called out Europeans for turning their backs on Middle Eastern refugees and accused Europe of forgetting its own refugee crisis some 60 years ago.

Despite its minor flaws, this film is an important piece of cinema amid the current global refugee crisis.

While theatrical dates have yet to be announced, Janus Films’ recent acquisition of the project will likely result in a small release in local art houses in the near future. 

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