There is a very thin line that separates the somber, droll, deadpan humor of writer/director Aki Kaurismäki and just plain boredom. It’s this grey area that Kaurismäki’s characters tend to find themselves in, even when characters are going after their dreams, or attempting to flee their war-torn country which could mean life or death. With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki leans into the mundane within the world he creates, rather than utilizing this humdrum lifestyle to some affective ends.
The second in Kaurismäki’s intended refugee trilogy, following 2011’s Le Havre, The Other Side of Hope splits its time between two characters. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland, and arrives in a coal boat, covered head-to-toe in black. Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) decides to leave his wife in the middle of the night, sell his old clothes selling business, and follows his midlife crisis dream of owning his own restaurant.
It’s almost assured that Kaurismäki will combine these two stories at some point – which he does – but The Other Side of Hope takes forever to get to this. Instead, Kaurismäki the process which Khaled has to go through in order to immigrate to Finland, and in maybe the film’s most banal section, shows Wikström going about earning the money for his restaurant and the changes he plans to make. This parallel storytelling between characters wouldn’t be so bland if Kaurismäki had any narrative ties that link these two stories in some way. Instead, The Other Side of Hope is more about the process leading up to their eventual meeting, without any discernible purpose.
Most of The Other Side of Hope’s humor comes in the absurdity of Kaurismäki’s Finland, yet he never pushes this quite far enough. Along with longtime cinematographer Timo Salminen, Kaurismäki shoots Finland in stale lighting and aged sets that play into the artificiality of the story. Wikström’s restaurant is the broadest joke at play here, with a menu that boasts of sardines in the tin, or when the restaurant tries out sushi, gross canned fish with ice cream scoop sized wasabi dollops on top. No matter how Wikström tries to change the restaurant to gain customers, his disgusting red carpet and painting of Jimi Hendrix set it strictly in the past. Kaurismäki’s screenplay is full of some fine one-liners, dispensed in bleak, uninspired fashion, but these moments of levity are few and far between.
Kaurismäki’s greatest sign of humanity comes with Khaled and his attempts to stay in Finland, despite the constant bombings in Syria and his desperate searching for his sister. The bureaucracy that Khaled must endure comes closest to Kaurismäki making any sort of point on the desperate frustrations of being a refugee, but never goes farther than passing references to the idiocy of the process.
This visual style and dull way of presenting his characters is his alone, and can have an aged beauty that matches his specific, unique way of telling his stories. But with his latest film, the structural missteps in separating the two main characters for as long as he does, as well as far too little humor or emotional stakes makes the experience of watching The Other Side of Hope as monotonous as the lives of its characters.