Wednesday 24 May 2017

Happy Finnish: "The Other Side of Hope"

As its writer-director Aki Kaurismäki has acknowledged in interviews, the best gag in The Other Side of Hope is that a refugee from the Syrian conflict should come to seek asylum in Finland, a place where - as Kaurismäki's films have proposed for years - there is never very much going on, and what little there is going on proceeds at the most glacial pace imaginable. Out of the frying pan, into the void. It is, nevertheless, the basis of a workable fish-out-of-water set-up, and Kaurismäki's voyager Khalid Ali (Sherwan Haji) is indeed plucked from the ocean: deposited in Helsinki from a freighter along with the several tonnes of coal he secreted himself within, emerging as black about the face as Yosemite Sam after one of his schemes involving ACME-brand dynamite backfires, the darkest of skin passing into what's just about the whitest population on the planet. Back on dry land, Khalid eventually crosses paths with marvellously named captain of industry Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a clothing salesman who leaves his wife in his first scene and quits his job shortly afterwards to pursue his dream of running a restaurant. Here, then, are two men who've been set adrift; the question occupying the film - though Kaurismäki, ever-laconic, doesn't so much state it as float it - is whether they will ever find safe harbour.

Hope was first announced as the second in this director's so-called Port Trilogy - a follow-up to 2011's wryly charming Le Havre - before Kaurismäki, with not untypical perversity, declared it would in fact be his last ever work. You could, at any rate, approach it as the seventeenth-or-so in a series of films d'Aki. The world may have changed dramatically in the years since Kaurismäki's feature debut, a 1983 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, but his framing - the way he's come to look at that world - has remained more or less constant: with a fixed, unblinking camera, positioned slightly closer to the characters than the cameras of Michael Haneke or Roy Andersson, the better to observe those sporadic flickers of emotion passing over his generally hangdog performers' faces. The new film has, granted, a comparatively serious and straight-faced opening movement, illustrating those hoops an asylum seeker has to pass through so as to give himself even a chance of making Northern Europe his home, yet by the time Waldemar wins the high-stakes poker game that allows him to snap up a nearby fleshpot - an establishment that could well do with an extra pair of hands - you can sense the film beginning to relax and have a measure of droll fun with its premise.

It helps that, despite its name ("The Golden Pint"), the restaurant in question is no obvious promised land, rather a dead-end dive last decorated circa 1975 (which would explain the Hendrix fresco adorning one wall). Here, the modest scattering of clientele are attended to by a chainsmoking chef (signature dish: still-canned sardines with solitary boiled potato) and a manager whose final act before turning the keys over to his successor is to empty both the cash register and the tips jar into his own pocket. "We couldn't go any lower if we tried," Waldemar sighs to Khalid at one point, but this last-chance saloon allows Kaurismäki to be amusingly self-deprecating about the nature of Finnish hospitality - one neighbouring hostelry has pints of the local brew pre-poured behind the bar for those sorry souls who pass through its doors - while pursuing a preferred theme of his: the coming together of people in unlikely or reduced circumstances. After discovering Khalid sleeping round the back of his bins ("This is my bedroom," the new arrival shrugs, forlornly), Waldemar gives his charge the helping hand he needs - work, phony ID card, a slightly more salubrious place to rest his head - but only after the two men have exchanged punches to the face.

Anybody coming cold to the film may find its style as much limitation as boon. The action here unfolds not in the real world so much as a gnomic, comic-strip version of it, populated by individuals with no better place to go; big belly laughs are few and far between, and - even when Khalid is confronted by the skinheaded thugs of the Finland Liberation Army - the life-and-death urgency of the In This World and Fire at Sea branches of refugee cinema proves to be beyond Kaurismäki's reach. That style is equally, however, a useful checking device: these scenes are forever too curt and clipped to succumb to mawkishness or blandishments, leaving their author the time and space to come up with, say, jokes about the myriad uses of pickled herring. That may make The Other Side of Hope sound like a niche concern, and in truth, it probably is; still, its characters' stoicism and quiet pragmatism in this matter - and Kaurismäki's determination to treat migration anecdotally, removed from the wailing and gnashing of teeth this subject has provoked elsewhere - is in its own way affecting. Brief encounter by brief encounter, bathetic punchline by pathetic punchline, Hope nudges and tickles its audience into an appreciably better place.

The Other Side of Hope opens in selected cinemas from Friday. 

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