Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Syrian refuge in Helsinki

Time was Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki was one of the hottest names of the festival circuit, having made his big splash with Leningrad Cowboys Go America (1989), a movie he followed with the equally praised The Match Factory Girl (1990). No longer the next big thing in international cinema, Kaurismaki -- now 60 -- has been plugging along for several decades, building a filmography that consists of movies that support his distinctive voice. Almost every description of a Kaurismaki movie involves the word "deadpan." His cigarette-smoking characters are people whose muted emotional responses make them difficult to read, and Kaurismaki supports them with a stable camera that doesn't attempt to examine every corner of every room. Kaurismaki survives as an artist because, in his case, deadpan isn't the same as moribund. Life in a Kaurismaki movie may be drab and dreary, but it's still life. In The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismaki examines the relationship between immigrants and their often reluctant hosts. Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrives in Helsinki hoping to be granted asylum. Khaled's story contrasts with that of the dour Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a man who leaves his alcoholic wife, unloads his shirt business and -- thanks to some luck at the card table -- puts together enough money to buy a restaurant. It's obvious from the start that the restaurant qualifies as a loser, but Wikstrom persists, even -- at one point -- trying to go trendy by serving sushi. The joke: He doesn't sushi from a Baltic herring. The restaurant's meager staff and its various failed attempts to reinvent the business are presented in Kaurismaki's dryly funny style. The movie's two threads (a refugee looking for a home and an established man trying to create a new life) come together when Khaled, having been denied asylum, escapes a detention center and lands a job at Wikstrom's restaurant. Kaurismaki dealt with issues of immigration in La Havre (2011), but he's clearly not done with the subject. Credit Kaurismaki with dredging compassion and even a bit of heroism from places where we least expect to find it and from people who, at first blush, don't seem capable of breaking through their isolation.

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