If I didn’t know better, I would have assumed that Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope was a lost Krzysztof Kieslowski film from the 1980s. The late Polish director was famous for his simple, fable-like style. You may recall his Dekalog, a series of ten films, each with a different commandment as its theme. Two of these films were expanded into features: A Short Film about Killing and A Short Film about Love. You may as well call Kaurismäki’s new flick A Short Film About Hope. It shares the same simple visual style, the same parabolic plot, and—make of this what you will—the setting looks remarkably like 1980s Poland.
It is not set in 1980s Poland, however; The Other Side of Hope tells two present-day stories set in the fictional country of Finland. In the first of these stories, we meet Wikström, a shirt salesman who unceremoniously dumps his wife after a bit of a row. He scrapes together a pile of shirts and a bit of cash, then goes on a gambling binge to turn his cash into lots of cash. With his newfound wealth, he buys a restaurant, which seems not to have been redecorated since the mid-1970s.
The second story involves Khaled, a refugee whose home in Aleppo was destroyed by a missile. Sneaking aboard a boat, he enters the mythological nation illegally, confident its government will grant him political asylum. He befriends an Iraqi émigré who helps him navigate the seemingly endless stream of reception centres and red tape. Eventually, Khaled finds himself on the run from the authorities, hiding out in Wikström’s restaurant.
I compared The Other Side of Hope to Kieslowski earlier, but the film differs in one important respect: the characters talk as if in a Robert Bresson picture. For the uninitiated, this means the actors speak in a flat near-monotone, with most traces of emotion erased from their lines. This stylistic choice has two notable consequences, the first of which is this: it is frequently very funny.
Consider the scene in which Wikström decides that his new restaurant is not working. Almost overnight, he transforms the otherwise typically Finnish eatery into a sushi palace. Plastered over the brightly lit electric sign is a thin piece of paper announcing the new name: ‘Imperial Sushi.’ A stumbling block occurs when the chef, who heretofore has shown absolutely no knowledge of sushi or sushi-like cuisine, neglects to order a sufficient amount of fresh fish. To cover this, he dusts off his trusty bucket of salted herring, confident that the wasabi will mask the difference in flavour. If played naturalistically, this scene could have come across as a tragedy, like a miniature version of Kiarostami’s The Secret of the Grain.
Or examine the scene where Khaled learns that the authorities have denied his request for asylum. They tell him that the situation in Syria is not dire enough to warrant relocation. They then escort him from the court to a waiting area next to a television. What’s on TV? Oh, just the latest news from Aleppo: a children’s hospital has been levelled in the wake of a new round of destruction. This is a tragic event, but drained of emotion the juxtaposition of these images is given the driest of humour—the comedy is so dry, in fact, it cracks and peels like skin.
The second consequence of this style is that, on the whole, it makes The Other Side of Hope emotionally unengaging. It’s hard to invest in people who don’t seem to care either way about the events of the plot. For instance, there is a scene where health inspectors come to Wikström’s restaurant. Khaled is illegal, so he has to hole up in a water closet to evade detection. There is absolutely no suspense in this scene at all. Since either eventuality—evasion or capture—would result in the same reaction from the characters (blank acceptance), any tension in the scene is drained away.
But overall, I give Kaurismäki points for erring on the side of flatness. Its much preferable to another Overwrought Plight of Sad Refugees Melodrama. The humour his style elicits stings more deeply than an infusion of easy treacle would.
Unlike Kieslowski, Kaurismäki provides no handy key for interpreting his film. Like a parable of Jesus, it’s simple enough to have many interpretations. He seems to be saying that, once you reach the other side of hope, you’ll find only two options: either more hope, or a dose of despair. Whichever you’re naturally more inclined to choose will likely affect how The Other Side of Hope works on you.