Tuesday 13 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (17) - THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (Aki Kaurasmaki, Finland) - Two views

Editor’s Note: What follows are two separate comments on this film. Different levels of enthusiasm about the elements are on display. My own view is first.

The intro for the daytime screening of Aki Kaurasmaki’s The Other Side of Hope mentioned that this was the first of the Finnish master’s films to screen at an SFF for twenty years. Lest you think that a whole host of films have been overlooked in fact four feature films slipped the net in that time and two of those The Man Without a Past (2002) and Le Havre (2011) had commercial seasons. Kaurasmaki occupied himself as well with a handful of short films made for inclusion in omnibus features, and a documentary. 

But what's to worry about? Kaurasmaki, some might say, makes the same film over and over again. His characters have the same demeanour and they say very little. He has a reliable stock company of actors, many of them now with sagging faces and, in the case of the males, lank and thinning hair. In the opening of this new film he introduces two strands of story and keeps them apart for maybe half the picture.  First involves a travelling salesman who sells shirts and drives a big black near-vintage car. Without a word he leaves his wife and sells up his small business. He buys a rundown restaurant and inherits three grumpy staff members whom the previous owner has ripped off for wages owing.

Parallel to this a Syrian refugee lands unexpectedly in Finland. He has become separated from his sister. He hands himself in, seeks asylum and ends up in a detention centre. It’s not the first time Kaurasmaki has dealt with the displaced but I suspect that such meticulous attention to the detail of processing has rarely been laid out. Kaurasmaki asks us to respect the difficult job the cops and the centre staff have to do. (It’s not something you could ever extend to the local equivalents where pathological hatred, violence and brutality, almost certainly endorsed if not ordered by the authorities, are the norm and multi-national companies run by pillars of society make much money for their shareholders by 'caring' for the unfortunates. I’ve been wanting to say that somewhere on this blog for some time.)

Inevitably the lives of the two collide. The hard-hearted businessman finds the escaped refugee living in his garbage bins and immediately offers him a job, notwithstanding that he has a constant struggle to get his restaurant into workable shape. Eventually it is converted to a sushi place and attracts busloads of Japanese tourists. What the tourists make of the amount of wasabi mustard slathered all over the top of the fish, a scene which drew howls, is not shown.

I’m not giving anything away in mentioning the sort of happy ending. I am also not giving anything away in paying tribute to the sensational music track, played by a half dozen groups and individuals, all well past middle age but sure able to make music to dream about. Kaurasmaki’s relaxation allows him to put the musicians on screen for as long as the songs go. Nice.... and a genuine hit.

Sherwan Haji (Khaled), Sakari Kuosmanen (Wikström)
Max Berghouse writes: Before I commence this review I should issue some caveats. Firstly I have a very limited sense of humour and I am really not fundamentally capable of judging a comedy, even a dark comedy like this. That agreed I should note that quite frequently during the showing of this film, many many people in the audience were laughing loudly, while the best I could muster was a wry smile. Secondly this film concerns substantially illegal immigration and sanctuary seeking in Finland. Whether or not one agrees with the position of the Australian government, which has effectively made any attempts at asylum seeking, well-nigh impossible, notwithstanding our treaty obligations, and generally demonising any asylum seeker, it really is a worthwhile and welcome change to see about the first half of this film which concerns the completely businesslike approach of the Finns. In effect "You have rights to seek asylum and this is the procedure" which includes being treated quite humanely and provided with refugee accommodation.

Although this is a feature film, in the typical style of this director, this is shown in a fairly emotionless but very calm way. He doesn't intrude directly with his own particular values but it does seem to describe very adequately the attitude of the Finns and their behaviour and leaves it to us to decide.

Given that practically every film under the sun is, by the time it gets to a festival like the SFF, is written up by just about every reliable media source on the net imaginable I prefer not to make too many "spoiler alerts" if I can. The plotline concerns two radically different people whose lives, of course (!) intersect and this is the significant ongoing plotline of the film. But it is not the only plotline. The original, more serious and in my view rather more interesting plotline is that of Aleppo, Syrian "refugee",Khaled, his escape to Finland and his dealings with the Finnish immigration/refugee service. It is full of information.

The second concerns a deeply withdrawn late middle-aged businessman, Wikström, a travelling shirt salesman and because of a difficult economy, trading poorly, with the yen to buy a restaurant. He is invariably presented in a suit with shirt and tie and collar buttoned. In fact he's very buttoned up, perhaps partly from personality and perhaps significantly also from the failed marriage. His wife (whom he leaves early in the film) is alcoholic. I presume there is some purpose in the fact that he drives around in a very elderly Checker, an American cab, long since out of production and originally much beloved of airport taxi services with the build construction of a Sherman tank. In the Finnish environment this would be ruinously expensive to run, so its inclusion, must have some purpose, but what it does for the plotline, I have no idea.

Khaled escapes from the refugee/incarceration area, his application for refugee status denied, even when the film displays clear evidence that his hometown Aleppo is manifestly dangerous. The two characters described above meet in the garbage area behind the restaurant recently purchased by Wikström. The purchase of this restaurant seems extraordinarily contrived. It is clearly going nowhere and Wikström it is also clearly no fool. Khaled claims the garbage space as his "bedroom" and the two men fight. This scene blacks out to be replaced by one in which, inside the restaurant, a famished Khaled is fed by the owner and his staff. From what has gone on before, this kindness – I suppose an extension of the general Finnish attitude to refugees – seems very artificial.

But it proceeds apace and the restaurant provides opportunities for some laughs. In between this relatively gentle humour is Khaled's concern for his remaining family, only a sister. The final scene is of Khaled sitting by water, the ocean or a river I'm not sure which, reflecting on – well, I don't know. The events that have happened to him immediately prior, would not in my opinion provoke what Khaled has done.

There are a number of representative trademarks of this director in the film, particularly the 50s –60s decor of the restaurant and the limited dialogue. In this director's work dialogue describes "what is", not "what should be", nor "why". There is overreliance on music, all played by pub musicians, who, whatever skills they possess, are certainly not very commercially viable. The music is (as best as I can guess it) a sort of Finnish version of electric rockabilly. Most if not all the music sequences don't add to the film at all in terms of development of plot and are in the main, too long.

In my considered view, this is a quite pleasant and adequate film. It is however a Silver Bear award winner from the Berlin Festival and that must certainly count for something as a contrary view to my fairly indifferent review.


  1. the wry humour in this film was beautifully deadpan . What a joy to see it on the big screen with a responsive audience. It has the most amusing scene I've seen in any film of SFF '17....when Kahled emerges after being hidden with dog. How better to solve world crises?

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