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Film review: The Other Side of Hope

Film

Finnish director and auteur Aki Kaurismäki returns to the issue of the plight of refugees in his latest characteristically quirky film, The Other Side of Hope, which opens the Scandinavian Film Festival in Adelaide tonight.

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Following on from his last film Le Havre (2011), Kaurismäki again focusses on the rise of anti-immigrant prejudice with his individual style of film-making which has the viewer feeling that modern Helsinki must be a charming yet stark step back into the 1990s.

The film is a curious mix of contemporary politics with retro allure while remaining unmistakably Kaurismäkian: minimalist, cheaply lit and peopled with dour characters who work wonders balancing punchy lines with long pauses.

The plot features a small cast of eccentric characters whose lives collide and connect in unexpected ways.

Khaled Ali (Sherwan Haji) is a refugee who has fled the war in Syria with his sister after the destruction of their home in Aleppo. The siblings are separated in the panic and confusion of crossing Europe, and Khaled ends up in Finland after stowing away aboard a coal freighter. He attempts to claim legal asylum in Helsinki but is refused and slated for deportation. Rather than lose all chance at a new life in a peaceful nation and desperate to find his sister, he escapes and ends up sleeping rough behind a restaurant.

The bizarre restaurant, The Golden Pint, complete with stark décor, a sardine-heavy menu and a Jimi Hendrix poster, has just been bought by the gruffly deadpan Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen). In need of a new life, Wikström has left both his wife and his job as a salesman selling shirts from the back of his magnificent classic car. After multiplying his earnings during a single night of poker, he’s now a restaurateur.

Wikström and Khaled’s lives intersect in the alley behind the restaurant and a strange relationship is born. The staff of the restaurant (all strange in their own right) take Khaled under their wing, organise fake papers and protect him from the authorities in a scene in which it’s made clear that an undocumented worker is just as undesirable in a commercial kitchen as a dog.

It is not easy to make a comedy with broad appeal that contains such a pointed political message. Yet Kaurismäki manages to achieve this with droll, deadpan humour and avoidance of sentimentality, which successfully inspires sympathy and compassion without making the audience feel emotionally manipulated.

Given the current plight of so many Middle Eastern refugees and the rise of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic sentiment, this is a timely film addressing a critical global issue. Fans of Kaurismäki will only be disappointed by the director’s recent announcement at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival that The Other Side of Hope will be his final film.

The Other Side of Hope is screening tonight (July 19) and again on July 22 and 29 as part of the Scandinavian Film Festival at Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas. See the full festival program here.

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