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THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (2017) review

January 6, 2018



written by: Aki Kaurismäki
produced by: Aki Kaurismäki
directed by: Aki Kaurismäki
rated: not rated
runtime: 100 min.
U.S. release date: October 13, 2017 (Chicago International Film Festival), December 1, 2017 (NY) and January 5, 2018 (Music Box Theatre, Chicago, IL) 


The last film I saw from Aki Kaurismäki was 2011’s “La Havre”, which was also my introduction to the work of the Finnish filmmaker. His latest film “The Other Side of Hope” (originally titled “Toivon Tuolla Puolen”) has recognizable similarities to that endearing tale, in both storyline and style. Both films involve illegal immigrants seeking a new life who experience the kindness of strangers, set to a carefully measured rhythmic tone, inhabited with a deadpan humor amid in real-world situations. It’s an effective and engaging humanist tale, written and produced by a director who has officially piqued my curiosity, leaving me with an interest in discovering his previous films. 

Set in modern-day Helsinki, the story follows two men who meet about halfway through the film and how their lives are impacted after they intersect. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a Syrian refugee who has unintentionally arrived in Finland as a stowaway after fleeing war-torn Aleppo. He hopes to receive political asylum and residency in this new environment with the goal of finding out what became of his sister, who was possibly detained somewhere near the Austrian border. Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), is an older Finnish businessman and big-time gambler, who recently left his wife and liquidated his sales to become a restauranteur, purchasing a location on the outskirts of town called The Golden Pint. Both men are at a crossroads, quietly rebuilding their lives, one by choice and the other out of necessity.

The two men have very different journeys, since the came from different socio-economic backgrounds, but how the two characters meet is quite humorous. The first time is very brief – when Wikström almost runs over Khaled in his car as the newly-arrived foreigner crossed the street at night, but the next time finds a destitute Khaled planting himself outside Wikström’s restaurant which finds the two exchanging fisticuffs, resulting in two bloody noses.




Kaurismäki simply observes who these two characters are, deliberately choosing to introduce them to viewers through mostly dialogue-free scenes that capture our attention as we get to know their behavior and dispositions in a wry and melancholic manner. When the two men unexpectedly officially meet, we have already witnessed Khaled get denied asylum and escape deportation and Wikström become the boss of restaurant workers (portrayed by stock players from Kaurismäki’s previous films) who’s previous employer was a crook who owed them months of back pay. They each have their own life experiences, as well as their new and precarious positions in life and what is most compelling is to see how help is offered and accepted. After giving each other those bloody noses, Wikström offers Khaled a job at his restaurant, which Khaled eagerly accepts and soon he is living in a storage room owned by Wikström in an underground parking lot.

Without hesitation, Wikström offers kindness to Khaled, which isn’t necessarily something we’ve seen him display previously to others prior to meeting Khaled. At the same time, Khaled never second guesses the kindness offered to him by Wikström and it would stand to reason how hesitant he would be accepting help from a stranger. Another character who offers Khaled kindness is Mazdak (newcomer Simon Al-Bazoon), who befriends Khaled at the the refugee center they meet at in Helsinki. This is a character we would typically assume would want something from Khaled or someone we would await a betrayal from, but that never happens. He offers advice to Khaled and even opens up about his own struggles, bringing the two closer together at a time when they need it most. It’s a reminder that when everything is stripped away from you in life, reaching out and connecting with others is a natural need and extension of survival.

Friendships collide when Wikström, Khaled and Mazdak travel to a shipping yard late one night to rendezvous with a contact of Wikström’s who assisted in retrieving Khaled’s sister, Miriam (Niroz Haji). It’s an atmospheric and tense scene that plays out like a classic film noir scene, finding these three men of different statures and backgrounds coming together to assist someone they’ve only recently met. As much as “The Other Side of Hope” consists of quirky characters who convey strange behavior (the entire restaurant crew of the Golden Pint comes to mind), what stands out is what they do for each other, especially Khaled.




Haji’s performance as Khaled is fascinating to watch. The relative newcomer plays Khaled with a warranted cautiousness and hesitation throughout – which is, at first curious – but then, when you learn his story, as he tells it in a very frank and vulnerable manner to a Finnish immigration official, his behavior and disposition makes sense. After all he’s been through, who can he trust or turn to? At first, it’s hard to determine what’s going on with Haji’s open-eyed stares, but since what he does and communicates relies so heavily on a silent physicality (at almost a silent movie star level), what he does becomes more and more impressive and impacting as the film unfolds. In a film where by odd, quirky and often hilarious characters can be found at just about every turn, his is the most memorable performance in “The Other Side of Hope”. It’s a character who stands out, because of the actor, despite the character doing everything he can not to be seen, which is a rare and unique thing to see.

There is an unsuspecting amount of human decency to be found in “The Other Side of Hope”, so much so that the threatening antagonists that pop up feel broadly cartoonish and out of place. They are a trio of skinheads with “Liberation Army Finland” written in white on the back of their black leather jackets. The threat of being found by authorities and sent back to Syria or never finding his sister is enough in and of itself, but the addition of these ‘racist villains’ feels forced and cliched. One expects the proverbial stranger in the strange land to be accosted or taken advantage of and while there’s some of that here, the threat here doesn’t congeal with the way the rest of the characters are represented in the film.

Kaurismäki is known for populated his films with downtrodden characters by actors delivering deadpan performances, which can definitely be found in “The Other Side of Hope”. Ultimately, its a bittersweet tale of human kindness in the shadow of authoritarian apathy. In some ways, it feels far-fetched, but it’s also a story that is needed.





RATING: ***1/2




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