The Other Side of Hope: Aki Kaurismaki returns to put the smile back on our faces

It’s been six years since Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki last made a film, so any announcement concerning a new film from him is a cause for major celebration. For any Kaurismaki fan, his films are like those rare, exotic delicacies that you get to taste only once in a blue moon. I say this because Kaurismaki is an unpredictable filmmaker. There was a gap of five years between his last film and the one before that. He doesn’t like to rush; he doesn’t feel the need to put something out every year. He takes his own sweet time.

This is why watching his new film, The Other Side of Hope, feels like such a blissful experience. You know you are going to relish it regardless of how it fares compared to his earlier films. And if it turns out to be very good — which it is — then all the better. The film has all the usual Kaurismaki trademarks: the ’60s aesthetic, the brilliant deadpan humor, familiar faces from his earlier films, and it’s shot on film. The subject matter of The Other Side of Hope is nothing new; in many ways, it’s similar to some of his earlier films. There are plot elements from Le Havre, The Man Without a Past — which, to me, is his best film — as well as Drifting Clouds.

It’s a story of two people whose paths cross in an interesting fashion. The outsider this time is a Syrian immigrant named Khaled who ends up in Finland unexpectedly, and later decides to seek asylum there. Kaurismaki introduces him by showing his body emerging from a pile of coal, an image that immediately evokes that of Phoenix rising from the ashes. I don’t know if Kaurismaki intended the shot to be that way, but if he did, then the analogy would be so apt considering the later actions of Khaled. He is a man who wants to put his past behind and start a new life in a new place. The first thing he does is go to the police station to report himself and tell the authorities his story, which we slowly learn is a tragic one.

Hailing from the troubled city of Aleppo, he lost his home and family — except for a missing sister — in a sudden missile attack. He wants to move on, and also look for his sister. The other story is that of a 60-year-0ld man named Waldemar Wigstrom who, one fine day, coolly leaves his shirt salesman job and his wife. He then goes off to play some poker and wins big. Using the earnings, he buys a restaurant. It takes a while for Khaled to inevitably end up at this restaurant; the initial confrontation between the two men is laced with Kaurismaki’s trademark deadpan wit. But before that, Kaurismaki takes us through several situations — dark and funny — to get us properly acquainted with Khaled. His interactions with a fellow Arab refugee are delightful.

Actions that may look insignificant and unnecessary in some other director’s film carry so much meaning in Kaurismaki’s films, even if they appear for few fleeting moments. As with his earlier films, there are musicians throughout the film, and also most of the characters smoke a lot — Kaurismaki is a chain smoker himself. In a way, they are all extensions of Kaurismaki’s persona. By putting a Syrian refugee in his story, Kaurismaki is not making a political statement of some kind, but rather simply showing us a small portion of the world where people don’t care about race or creed — people who just want to be good to each other. The present state of the world may make us increasingly cynical, but as long as we have few good people by our side, surviving is not such a difficult thing.

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