Few filmmakers are as drawn to opposites as Aki Kaurismaki, the Finnish master of quirk whose deadpan comic parables leave plenty of space for despair. In his semi-delightful, semi-sad new semi-comedy, The Other Side of Hope, characters in loudly colored clothes handle loudly colored props in pools of light amid the general gloom. Scenes of goofy sentiment follow scenes of intense cruelty in a seesaw of bright and grim. Little in Kaurismaki’s films can be easily reconciled, anymore than you can reconcile the country-and-western musician with the dirty, deserted Helsinki street on which he’s shown strumming his guitar. You laugh because what else can you do?
There are two protagonists in The Other Side of Hope, and they are, of course, total opposites. One is Wikstrom (Kaurismaki regular Sakari Kuosmanen), a reasonably well-off middle-aged salesman (and virtuoso poker player) who leaves his alcoholic wife, sells his company, and buys a rather seedy restaurant that he intends to make into something better. The other is a Syrian refugee, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), for whom tragedies have come so thick and fast that his life is a sick joke. His parents and most of his siblings died in a bomb strike. He was separated from his surviving sister at the chaotic Turkish border. He was nearly killed by neo-Nazis in Poland, staying alive only by hiding in a cargo ship bound for Helsinki. Now, in Finland, immigration officials have decided that he must be forcibly returned to Syria because there is no immediate threat in his home city. His home city is Aleppo.
Here is how Kaurismaki works. Having escaped from immigrant’s prison but now hunted by racist thugs, Khaled lies in an alley, where Wikstrom — bringing out the trash from his restaurant — finds and has words with him. A fight ensues and Khaled decks the bigger but older man. In the next scene, the hungry Khaled is being fed inside the restaurant while Wikstrom marvels at the man’s right hook. How easily Wikstrom could have phoned the police, leading to more woe. But Kaurismaki writes like those improv performers who are told never to say no to another onstage because that would forestall future avenues — however absurd-seeming — for exploration. It’s far more fun to have Wikstrom — no stranger to misfortune — to bring Khaled in, measure him for a uniform, pay for a fake ID, and let him sleep in a food-storage room. But just when you think, “What a nice, sentimental little comedy,” misfortune is apt to rear its head.
The central section of The Other Side of Hope suggests that you can indeed keep going, past despair, and come back around to hope. The restaurant’s somewhat sullen employees — each with his or her own problems but who respect their new owner’s good intentions — farcically hide Khaled from health inspectors. They participate in a screamingly funny — and disastrous — attempt to turn the place into a sushi restaurant. They lend their support when Khaled returns to his most vital mission: finding his sister.
The story of Khaled could have been told in the harshest way possible — and it is, elsewhere. The documentary Last Men in Aleppo shows young men just like him burrowing in rubble and finding bodies of women and children. But not enough people will see Last Men in Aleppo because, well, who wants to look at pictures of dead children? (We will, but we don’t want to.) A film like The Other Side of Hope — which is tragic, funny, depressing, and inspiring — shows that a truly imaginative artist has resources unavailable to journalists and nonfiction filmmakers. In Kaurismaki’s work, it’s as if the masks of comedy and tragedy don’t — as usual — face away from each other, but stare each other in the face, as if they were saying, “You and me, we’re in this together.”