Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Refugee camp


Scene from director Aki Kaurismaki's "The Other Side of Hope." Photo: Janus Films
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In the opening frames of the new Finnish comedy-drama "The Other Side of Hope," a head appears in a dusty coal-bin aboard what seems like a tramp steamer. Without ceremony we have met one-half of the lead acting team. Khaled (Sherwan Haji) is a young man fleeing the bomb-strewn chaos of his Syrian hometown, Aleppo. It takes more than half the story to discover the crimes committed against him and his family. What we learn quickly is that he is fleeing for his life and desperately needs a warm bed, a simple job and a guarantee that he's not headed back to Syria.

What he gets instead is a humorless bureaucratic two-step, administered by kindly but implacable types who appear to have neither heard the news nor ever experienced a Marx Brothers comedy. For a time Khaled can neither abandon all hope nor kiss Finnish soil in eternal gratitude.

Then the desperate refugee has a bumpy encounter with fate in the form of seemingly humorless businessman Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen, a stock player in this director's distinctly non-utopian universe). We have witnessed the man leaving his wife – placing his house key and wedding band on the kitchen table, whereupon she sticks the ring in an overflowing ashtray and downs a stiff drink. Every act is undertaken stoically. Even his getaway car is a boxy vehicle resembling nothing as much as an 80s Manhattan Checker cab.

The departing husband stops only to clean up at a friendly poker game, then heads for a real estate office where he invests in a bar/restaurant he dubs "The Golden Pint." Spotting Khaled back near the garbage bins, the men exchange punches before the older man hires the younger to make sushi. A great thing about "The Other Side of Hope" is that we don't have to dine there, but can enjoy watching those who do. The pair is joined by a feckless staff: a clueless chef (Janne Hyytiainen), a jaded waitress (Nuppu Koivu) and a head waiter who's a mix of Kafka and Woody Allen.

The film from director Aki Kaurismaki, best-known for 1989's "Leningrad Cowboys Go America," can be likened to the bleak but worthy resume of Jim Jarmusch ("Stranger Than Paradise"). Life's chores and wars are never won. A happy stand-off is all these dark souls can bear. The film is a deadpan-humor tutorial on the refugee crisis, Neo-Nazi skinheads and the practical side of surviving in a world nestled uneasily between desperate dreams and Fascist means. (In Finnish, English and Arabic, with English subtitles. Opens Friday.)


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