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Aki Kaurismaki Film, 'The Other Side Of Hope' Similar To His Other Projects

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Janus Films
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The Other Side of Hope opens as you might expect of a film by the Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. After shots of industrial-looking cargo ships unloading in a harbor, comes a nighttime shot of a man emerging from a pile of coal sitting in a ship’s hold. We’re getting used to movies about refugees from the Middle East, so maybe he’s Syrian, but you can’t read how he looks because he’s grimy from the coal dust.

It turns out that Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a Syrian refugee. As he sneaks off the ship, he sees a cartoon on a television. What happens to this man may be cartoonish, but it’s not often funny.

Next, a Finnish man in a drab room with blank walls packs a suitcase as he dresses – in a tie and jacket. Wikström’s wife sits in the next room, drunk; she smokes, her hair in curlers. The man drops his keys on the table and walks out on her. He’s a shirt salesman; he sells off all his stock and suddenly buys a restaurant –these elements will come together.

As with most Kaurismaki films, why people do what they do remains unexplained. There’s not much of psychology or motivation. People cross paths and make inexplicable connections. Wikström drives off and nearly hits Khaled at a traffic light. It’s not a Hollywood-style “meet cute,” but it joins them, and Khaled goes to work in the restaurant.

The Kaurismaki world is flat and bleak. Hardly anything adorns walls; no trinkets sit on tables. For the most part, character faces show no expression. No one gets excited, except a trio of nasty skinheads. People seem simply to walk through their lives without emotion or reaction. When an immigration judge informs Khaled that the court finds no real danger of violence if he returns to the Syrian city of Aleppo, there’s no inflection in his voice – and none from Khaled either. And not in the young woman guard who silently opens a door for him to escape from the detention center.

There’s a lighter side to this disturbing, blank-eyed vision. A very good rock ‘n’ roll band apparently forms during the film and plays occasionally. Their lyrics are not uplifting – “Mama, I’ll soon be sleeping in the cold ground” – but the instrumental work is fine. The restaurant also has its moments. A lunch special of sardines and potatoes arrives on a plate with a half-opened can of sardines, flanked by two dreary boiled potatoes and a pickle. In another unexplained move, the restaurant presents a sushi menu – and a roomful of Japanese tourists arrives. When the kitchen runs out of salmon, the cook substitutes salted herring. And, again, without notice or explanation, a portrait of Jimi Hendrix hangs alone on a wall.

The Other Side of Hope is not without feeling. Khaled’s face may be flat when he describes the blast that killed his family, and his unrelenting hope to find his sister, but it’s not blank for us in the audience. Aki Kaurismaki just doesn’t tell viewers how to feel. His movies tend to be about outsiders, people who are scorned or dispossessed or don’t fit in. This emptiness is how they experience the world they inhabit. There’s not much decoration apparent to people who don’t or aren’t allowed to fit in, and for those who are foreign in some way or another, there’s no coherence to social life. Things just happen, and it does no good to try to figure out why, when you face the huge task of surviving.

Kaurismaki, in his stiff, tight-lipped way, is one of the humane filmmakers in the world. He pictures loneliness directly, with blunt unyielding clarity, and he doesn’t try to make it nice or make it go away. It’s just there, and it’s up to us to give a damn.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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