The Other Side of Hope

Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope, which is playing this week at the Music Box, is the only recent film I know that merits comparison with the work of Charlie Chaplin. Like Chaplin, Kaurismäki (The Match Factory Girl, The Man Without a Past) blends humor and pathos in his look at a down-and-out individual by using the character’s misadventures to illuminate the plight of many others like him. Chaplin’s Little Tramp was remarkably versatile, taking in the form of numerous oppressed people: immigrants, the unemployed, Jews in Hitler’s Germany. That Chaplin always found comedy in the Tramp’s situations spoke to his imagination and sympathy—this strategy universalized the scenes he presented and increased audience sympathy with the hero. In Hope Kaurismäki shifts between comic and tragic modes, whereas Chaplin interwove them. Yet the effect is similar to what Chaplin achieved with The Great Dictator: the movie draws attention to a pressing global issue while functioning as crowd-pleasing entertainment.

Kaurismäki’s Tramp figure is a Syrian refugee named Khaled (Sherwan Haji). After a series of dangerous adventures through the Middle East and Europe, Khaled winds up in Helsinki and decides to seek asylum there. He’s been told that Finnish people are good and that they help those in need; he believes he can settle down there after he locates his sister, the only other member of his extended family to survive a bombing that wiped out their home in Aleppo. Khaled’s story recalls some of those that Ai Weiwei incorporated into his recent documentary Human Flow, which tackled refugee crises on a global scale. In taking a more focused approach, Kaurismäki humanizes the issue, with Khaled standing in for millions of displaced people worldwide. Khaled’s deadpan demeanor (a constant among Kaurismäki heroes) makes it easy for viewers to project their emotions onto him; their sadness and sympathy become his, and vice versa.

Kaurismäki intercuts Khaled’s progress in Helsinki (finding a shelter to stay in, appealing for asylum) with the story of Wikström, an aging Finnish businessman trying to reinvent his life. Wikström’s story isn’t as suspenseful or as timely as Khaled’s, yet it enhances the other narrative. Wikström is able to try new things and enjoy his life because he’s a citizen of a stable nation—something that Khaled hasn’t been able to experience in some time. Like Khaled, Wikström chronically underreacts to everything around him, though the effect is comic as opposed to bittersweet. He’s a lovable sad sack in classic Kaurismäki fashion—a Finnish everyman whose plight provides a source of comforting humor.

The Other Side of Hope

Wikström comes into the possession of a restaurant, and it’s here that his story intersects with Khaled’s. Khaled hides in the restaurant’s back room after government officials, declaring Syria no longer to be a dangerous place, try to send him back to his native country. Wikström takes him in and adds him to the staff; the other employees quickly develop a protective sympathy toward him. The scenes showing Khaled’s acceptance by the other workers are some of the best in the film, as they demonstrate on a small scale how people in first-world nations might help refugees from other countries. Kaurismäki doesn’t overstate the emotions of these scenes—as always the deadpan demeanor of his characters extends to his filmmaking, with its lack of camera movement and close-ups—but they resonate all the same. Drained of outward emotion, the employees’ behavior seems instinctive, the appropriate response of anyone in their position.

The funniest passage of Hope comes near the end, when Wikström transforms his restaurant into a sushi bar in an ill-advised attempt to increase business. Neither he nor any of his employees know much about making sushi (or, for that matter, Japanese culture in general), yet they try operating as “Imperial Sushi” all the same. In a funny twist, a busload of Japanese tourists show up on the night of the grand reopening, and the staff has to feed all of them even after the kitchen runs out of fresh fish. This scene may be superfluous to the narrative, but it illuminates the characters’ good intentions in their attempt to understand other cultures. It’s a comic reiteration of the film’s grand theme—that people in comfortable situations can draw on their imagination and inherent sympathy to help refugees in need.