2017; written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki; 100 mins
I have a new favourite Aki Kaurismäki movie! Move over Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses! Sadly, this is also going to be his last, if the director’s own statements are to be believed*. Still, at least he managed to get in all the Kaurismäki-isms like the font you see above which spells out the credits of all his movies, people drinking and smoking as though it will put years back on their lives, old men playing 50s Rock & Roll, poker faces galore and deliberately stilted camera direction. What an oddly cosy place to be.
The film begins with Khaled, a Syrian refugee who accidentally winds up in Finland, minus a family, seeking asylum. He turns himself in to the authorities and is placed in a refugee boarding house. He tries to find work to little avail until he meets and punches Wikström, a divorcee who has given up his life as a travelling shirt salesman to open a crap restaurant called The Golden Pint. Wikström gives Khaled a job alongside his other hopeless employees and sorts him out with false papers but there are many unforeseen dangers for Khaled that still lie ahead…
Writing that synopsis, I realised I wasn’t sure why Wikström helps Khaled. Above and beyond cheap labour, it’s never explained but thinking a little deeper, it’s kind of what the film is about: random acts of kindness. Your saviour may not be the person you expected. Certainly not a sour-faced restaurateur with little discernible compassion for anyone. Keeping up the atypical optimism of his previous film, Le Havre, Kaurismäki is looking at the good side of the ordinary pissheads and down-and-outs that he makes films about and their ability to do good in the face of Damoclean bureaucracy.
This, I think, is what got the audience onboard yesterday. Because Kaurismäki, with all his mannerisms, is such an acquired taste, it felt like people were wondering if all the stilted, po-faced acting was for real? It was and has been for 30 years. However, this time round, it felt like his style of directing actors was serving two purposes. First and foremost, the rigidly deadpan style really sells the jokes and let’s not forget (as critics often do) that this is a comedy first and foremost (Japanese night being the highlight). Secondly, there is the gradual drip-feed of Khaled’s journey from Syria, in particular, an unbroken take in which he tells his horror story to an official. Here, you get the very real sense of a man whose travails have shut-down his emotions, which rings true for many Kaurismäki characters but here brings it bang up to date, to talk about the refugee crisis that is tearing the world apart.
It’s a two-pronged directorial strategy that pays off in a way that only someone of Kaurismäki’s heart, experience and skill, all of which have never really been appreciated til recently, could get away with. It’s the bitterest of sweet comedy swansongs that deserves to be seen on the big screen!
*and to honest, the amount of times we hear directors retiring, I think it should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE has one more screening at Regent Theatre Saturday 12th August at 6.15p.m.