The Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki films are often marked by a particular kind of humor. As I’ve been saying since the early 1990s, he really can put the “dead” in “deadpan.” This was particularly true in such ‘90s pictures as “The Match Factory Girl” and “I Hired A Contract Killer,” tales of privation and depression that treated these subjects with both gravity and acknowledgement of an overall absurdity in the human condition. Mr. Kaurismäki’s protagonists are often drink-soaked sad sacks who achieve a kind of sodden resignation. In cases where they’re not these types, they’re the Leningrad Cowboys, an unlikely “rock” “band” that carries on inexorably despite their ineptitude and the bemused semi-indifference of nearly every audience they encounter.
In recent years, though, the director has found something to believe in, and this has added a humanist dimension to his pictures that is both pleasing and moving. His 2011 “Le Havre” was about a shoe-shiner in the title French port who takes in a young African teen who came on a container ship. Aside from being an excellent illustration of the Christian proverb about loving thy neighbor, it was also a warm and funny film standing up for the larger principle of immigration.
So too is his latest feature, “The Other Side of Hope.” Because it’s set in his native Finland, I suppose this picture has more of what I’ll call Akian tropes than “Le Havre” did. One of its protagonists, Wikström, drives around in a sleek, oversized black car of a vintage unknown to me, in keeping with the director’s insistence of never depicting a post-1962 auto. Wikström is a man at loose ends, having dissolved his marriage and subsequently won a small fortune at poker. He decides to invest that cash in a small bar/restaurant that’s very down at its heels, and whose staff is highly ambivalent about the quality of attention that comes with a new owner. In the meantime, Khaled, a Syrian refugee who’s come in via a coal ship (his emergence on docking is an unforgettable image) is being processed through Finland’s supposedly humane immigration system. But once he’s very politely rejected, he goes on the lam. Not selfishly—he is merely desperate to get word from his sister in Syria while he is in Europe, and to arrange her passage out of Syria from the safety of Helsinki.
Once Khaled and Wikström’s paths cross for the second time (their first encounter is when Wikström almost runs him down in that aforementioned car), hope is revived, and comedy blossoms, as when Wikström tries to transform his place into a sushi restaurant. But Khaled’s quest is made difficult by belligerent racist skinheads. By the time Khaled is actually put in touch with his sister, the race against time is even more critical.
The movie expands upon Kaurismäki’s central mode of observation and delivers some trenchant, upsetting truths about the immigration experience from the side of those seeking asylum. While in the detaining center awaiting a ruling on his case, Khaled is told by a friend not to appear too cheerful, as people will take him for mentally disturbed. Of course a serious mien may lead some to react with fear. As for the skinheads, they consistently get Khaled’s ethnicity wrong as they spew hate at him.
Kaurismäki makes these bigots look ridiculous, but he also takes very seriously the damage they do, and the movie’s finale takes that into account. Its suggestive title lingers at the end, leaving a question mark that the viewer will have to turn over personally, and that’s a good thing.