• [The Daily] NYFF 2017: Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope

    By David Hudson


    For kicks, I’m opening this one with something I wrote myself back in February, just hours after seeing the film at the Berlinale: “Aki Kaurismäki’s uneven but irresistibly amusing The Other Side of Hope, dedicated to the late film historian Peter von Bagh, plays like a sort of greatest hits compilation. As with Le Havre (2011), Kaurismäki’s last and, frankly, stronger feature, Hope grapples with Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis and, as with all of Kaurismäki’s films, the palette, props and costumes are impeccably vintage—it’s as if one of the vampires from Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) has designed the production. And of course, Kaurismäki’s characters still deliver the deadliest deadpan in contemporary cinema.”

    The Other Side of Hope, screening tonight and Tuesday night at the New York Film Festival, would go on to win a Silver Bear for Best Director and eventually the Grand Prix 2017, the Best Film of the Year award from the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI).

    “This time the plight of his refugee, a Syrian emigrant named Khaled (Sherwan Haji) . . . is played as often for laughs as it is lament, though Kaurismäki never allows the gravity of his situation to fall far from view,” writes Jordan Cronk for Cinema Scope. “In a welcome return, touches of the situational, quasi-surrealist comedy that defined both the director’s bastardized take on Hamlet as well as his beloved Leningrad Cowboys manifest themselves when Khaled crosses paths with the middle-aged Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling salesman turned restaurateur who enlists the outsider to help out at his newest entrepreneurial venture, The Golden Pint.”

    “If the earlier Kaurismäki films like Shadows in Paradise and The Man Without a Past were deadpan, blue-collar subversions of melodramatic plot points and classic film genres, then The Other Side of Hope is a commentary on ‘Kaurismäki themes,’” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club. “This is nothing that Kaurismäki hasn’t done before, but the portions of the film that deal exclusively with Khaled—as he turns himself into the authorities, makes friends at a refugee barracks, and searches for his lost sister—contain some of his purest filmmaking.”

    “Kaurismäki has spoken of this film as being the second in a planned ‘refugee trilogy,’ with the third shooting location as yet undetermined,” notes Clayton Dillard at Slant. “Based on the dip in quality from Le Havre to The Other Side of Hope, though, one may wonder if Kaurismäki hasn't already exhausted the material, especially since this new film hits comparable narrative beats without the same specificity as its predecessor.”

    On the other hand, Dylan Pasture for Screen Slate: “In the fifteen years since The Man Without a Past, Kaurismäki—the jewel of Finland—has grown into a filmmaker of uncommon grace, the cranky sarcasm of his work from the 80s and 90s gradually opening up into something more tender, humanistic, and (in his own grumpy way) hopeful. . . . Perhaps the warmest journey yet into ‘Aki Land,’ Hope shows that, more than any retro jukebox, Kaurismäki’s real preoccupations have always been with the survival of the working class, and its suggestion that we may still depend on our fellow man feels, quietly, more radical than anything else at the movies.”

    At In Review Online, Justin Stewart finds that “tuned into the violence, fear, and danger that accompany immigration, The Other Side of Hope avoids cute cuddliness, thanks to its tone-perfect acting and Kaurismäki’s arch compassion.”

    That’s a sampling of what’s been written recently. For a broader overview of the reception since February, see Critics Round Up.

    Updates, 10/7: “Generous and witty, Kaurismäki’s films offer dignity to those who couldn’t afford it, making the comfortable feel uncomfortable and vice versa,” writes Giovanni Vimercati for Reverse Shot. “In The Other Side of Hope, the Finnish director manages to find grace amidst disgrace, relieving the so-called refugee crisis (read: the violent displacement of innocent people by postcolonial powers) from the hypocrisy with which it has been represented, onscreen (as in Rosi’s Fire at Sea, with its opportunistic use of migrants) and off. Those looking for an edifying tale on the nobility of charity will be sorely disappointed, for the only acts of fraternal unity in the film take place where respectable people wouldn’t dare venture. . . . The Other Side of Hope is a slapstick tragedy playing out in slow motion against the shameful backdrop of the biggest political crime of our times: the gratuitous and outright persecution of people guilty of being born in the wrong corner of the world.”

    For Dustin Chang at ScreenAnarchy, The Other Side of Hope is “an affecting, optimistic look at human kindness and decency. It also turns out to be one of his finest films.”

    Update, 10/27: “With a generosity worth emulating, Kaurismäki gives his refugee (Sherwan Haji) key lighting worthy of a 1940s movie star, live performances of the best Finnish rockabilly (played by musicians who look like Frank Zappa forgot them in a parking lot sometime in the ’80s), and a conspiracy of newfound friends who are unfailingly loyal, despite running the city’s worst harborside restaurant,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “It’s all very silly, in the face of the Syrian horrors and European brutalities that Kaurismäki takes pains to acknowledge. To these, he can counterpose only kindness, community, humor, and art.”

    Updates, 11/3:The Other Side of Hope draws an implicit reference to Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, both of which deploy a specific deadpan humor to dramatize unlikely relationships across borders of age and race (between elder Europeans and younger migrants),” writes Carlos Kong for photogénie. “Following Fassbinder, Kaurismäki’s refined use of satire and juxtaposition serves to expose the social hypocrisies and blatant racism against migrants that both directors candidly depict and critique of their respective milieu.”

    “There is a quaintness to The Other Side of Hope that doesn’t just have to do with the typewriters and retro jukeboxes that furnish its spare mise en scène,” writes Devika Girish in Film Comment. “Kaurismäki’s unworldly drollery, unchanged across twenty films since 1983, feels like it’s from another time—until it’s ruptured by the shocking contemporaneity of the global refugee crisis against which the movie is set.” And “the director’s political critique is manifest in every frame. An uproarious setpiece involving the half-baked makeover of Wikström’s restaurant into a sushi joint doubles as a send-up of Europe’s willingness to fetishistically consume, but not embody, multiculturalism.”

    Updates, 12/9: Kaurismäki “is a profoundly patriotic filmmaker,” argues A. O. Scott in the New York Times. “He is less a satirical observer of his nation’s foibles than an excavator of its mopey, mordant, steadfast conscience. Helsinki, as Khaled experiences it, has its dangers. He is menaced by racist skinheads and thwarted by literal-minded bureaucrats. Yet he also encounters the unsentimental, occasionally grudging kindness of ordinary Finns, and when he tells Mazdak that he has fallen in love with his new home, you can understand why.”

    Writing for Film Comment, Jonathan Romney suggests that The Other Side of Hope is “something of a rerun of Le Havre—but then, The Other Side of Hope is also a rerun of other Kaurismäki films, not least Drifting Clouds, about a couple’s beleaguered attempts to run a struggling restaurant. Parts of Kaurismäki’s latest, in which a disillusioned businessman attempts to relaunch a no-hope diner, feel like Drifting Clouds 2, right down to the appearance of a winsome dog (but then, even if Kaurismäki set a film on the surface of Mars, there would be a winsome dog somewhere).”

    “So why is it that the dogs in Kaurismäki’s films, despite their fleeting appearances, register with such vividness and make such an improbably lasting impression?” asks Girish Shambu, writing for the TIFF Review. The question resonates farther and deeper than you might at first think. As for The Other Side of Hope, “Khaled and the stray dog Koistinen are both adopted by the staff of a shakily managed restaurant. Their fates remain intertwined to the very end; movingly, they even share the film’s final image.”

    “The story of Khaled could have been told in the harshest way possible—and it is, elsewhere,” writes David Edelstein at Vulture. “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 Kaurismäki’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.’”

    “Kaurismäki’s restraint can drain scenes of their electricity,” find Tim Grierson, writing for Paste. “As a result, the xenophobia this refugee faces is a little more theatrical and not quite as harrowing as the horrors he would experience in real life. This is not to suggest that Kaurismäki isn’t invested in Khaled’s fate. But he does keep the film’s pulse at his usual cool, subdued pace. Of course, that tonal strategy works quite well as the movie draws to its close and Kaurismäki resolves his characters’ journeys in unexpected, surprisingly touching ways.”

    At RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny notes that the skinheads “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.”

    “Much of what’s appealing about The Other Side of Hope is the way Kaurismäki deals with Important Subject Matter without changing his style or sensibility one iota,” finds Steve Erickson in Gay City News. “His films have always felt like a mix of Frank Capra and Jim Jarmusch, combining a commitment to surface cool and hipness with a heart, even a sentimentality that’s all the more powerful because it’s somewhat buried. Until very recently, Kaurismäki has never made films that feel overtly political, but he has consistently expressed as much sympathy for working-class people as Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers. He seems to share the same international arthouse influences that fed Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, and one can see echoes of Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu in his framing and cutting choices. But there is also a deadpan wit that’s not far from Buster Keaton.”

    Sarah Hagi for the TIFF Review: “When speaking on the phone about playing Khaled, Haji told me that it was natural for him to play the role so subtly, describing his approach as ‘[having] a lot of feelings inside, but not physically showing them.’ Haji played Khaled by seeing him as a normal human being. Says the actor, ‘Khaled happened to be someone who went through something sad, but still kept his dignity and tried hard to make things right.’”

    Update, 12/24: “It’s an odd movie, for sure,” writes Christopher Llewellyn Reed at Hammer to Nail, “but that’s Kaurismäki for you. Sui generis, he imbues every frame of the film with his own particular quirky sensibility, recognizable from his pervious work. Though the camera does (occasionally) move, it never leaves the tripod, lending the affair a static quality, a perfect metaphor for Khaled’s plight. I can’t say that I loved The Other Side of the Hope, but I found it extremely compelling, nonetheless, filled with great minimalist performances and off-kilter compositions.”

    Update, 1/10: For Ben Sachs, writing in the Chicago Reader, this “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.”

    NYFF 2017 Index. For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.

Leave the first comment