Midway through The Other Side of Hope, experienced immigrant Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon) tells new arrival asylum seeker Khaled (Sherwan Haji) to not be sad, as ‘they send the melancholic ones back first’. There’s a worldly wisdom to the line, made more poignant by just how unfair it is. If writer-director Aki Kaurismaki’s version of Finland wants to get less gloomy, they’ve got a fair few natives to get rid of before they can even consider the immigrants. A nice, if slight, tale of glum but decent people trying to do the right thing, Hope gets across its timely and important message with levity and an old-fashioned style.
Khaled has escaped from Aleppo, where his family home was destroyed by a missile, and finds himself in a Finnish port town, turning himself in to the police to seek asylum. He’s swiftly carted off to a Reception Centre, where he quickly bonds with Mazdak, but waits in agony to find out if his lost sister is safe and whether his asylum application will be accepted. Despite its gentleness, Hope doesn’t ignore the harsh realities for those migrating into Scandinavia, as faceless bureaucrats ignore the human consequences of their decision and a persistent racist gang torments Khaled.
Parallel to Khaled’s story runs that of Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a recently divorced aging entrepreneur who trades in his garment business to buy the terrible but relatively popular restaurant ‘The Golden Pint’. It’s not a plot with much emotional heft or intrigue, but it does provide the film’s biggest laughs when Wikstrom tries to convert this traditional Finnish pub grub joint into a trendy sushi place. It’s a scheme that lasts exactly one night. Wikstrom and Khaled don’t collide until surprisingly late in their respective stories, but it’s an effectively cathartic meeting that kicks off the largely bright and breezy final act.
Hope really relies on the charms of its cast, with very little in the way of actual emotional engagement or proper consistent comedy. It’s never dull or even measurably bad, but just sort of washes over you without much of an impact beyond light entertainment. Strong visuals lift things, with a very ‘50s-inspired look providing plenty of memorable images. Characters always seem to loom into frame whether in close-up or long shot, and dim lighting combined with saturated colours lends an out of time feeling that contrasts effectively with the never-more-relevant subject matter.
In any given scene, it’s hard to place exactly what decade you’re in, with post-war living standards, ‘70s technology, and a very 21st century story of Middle Eastern immigrants being told to go back to the country that they actually desperately wish it was possible to return to. After Khaled is told that he has to leave Finland because Aleppo doesn’t qualify as ‘unsafe’ by European authority standards, we see the news reports of the brutal killing of civilians in that very city. It’s heavy handed, but illustrative of the blinkered way that countries without war forget their former troubles as soon as it’s convenient to turn away the needy. Credit to Kaurismaki for not delivering it in a bleak dirge, but such a message deserved a more potent film.