Aki Kaurismäki may be hard to describe, but has pretty much earned the title of auteur - his films feel like windows into one world, a world which he builds with compassion, poker-faced humour and distinctive retro styling. His Le Havre won awards and much love, including Cannes' Special Mention of it being an "ode to hope, solidarity and brotherhood". The Other Side of Hope carries many similarities to its predecessor, centring around the meeting of a migrant and a post-middle-age European man. But its attempt to balance the migrant experience's grim realities with ultra-deadpan comedy leaves this work feeling disjointed.
We open once again at a port, this time in Finland, into which Sherwan Haji's Khaled makes quite an entrance. As he does so concealed in a coal container, this initial entrance is precisely non-spectacular, but the image of him emerging, Psammead-like, from the coal is arresting - his dust-blackened face and clothes combine well with some matinée-idol framing. As an introduction to a hero, this is pretty original and effective. Haji's expressionless handsomeness, and Khaled's story of an arduous flight from Aleppo, suggest that he could carry a film on his own - but he is destined to meet Wikström, who shows him kindness.
Sakari Kuosmanen is good as this ageing salesman, combining some business nous with resigned desperation. His parallel story shows him walking out on his alcoholic wife, selling his business (flogging dress shirts) and buying up an affordable, thoroughly rubbish restaurant. This all unfolds with winsome and increasing comedy, and a sense of unreality. There are echoes of Richard Ayoade's The Double in some super-deadpan lines, archaic props (the typewriter which illustrates the grindingly slow progress of Finland's immigration services) and the surface attractiveness of cinema made by a cinephile. The comically precise blocking (an official walks towards Khaled as if following feint markings on the floor) and fixed camera positions bring Swedish black comedy A Pigeon Sat on A Branch... to mind, and the above still may evoke Wes Anderson - there is indeed lots of humour and effective stylisation going on, but the humour and social comment don't seem to mesh.
So perhaps we have two films coexisting here. Wikström's restaurant staff bring the laughs with their disregard for professionalism or hygiene, musicians in the guise of buskers and jobbing bands bring the rockabilly vibes as well as some Greek chorus-like lyrics. And yet, on the other hand we witness the violent hatred and quiet compassion shown to Khaled; the rich black of his coal-dust swirling down the shower-drain; the heartbreaking testimony he gives to immigration services in which he shows he's internalised the sense of being a non-entity placed on him by having his home bombed, fleeing, hiding, being unwelcome, and fleeing again. Most involving is his friendship with other migrants. In the sub-hostel conditions in which the services house them, we see them at night, in ten-ish beds: silence, and Khaled remains awake either through the necessary vigilance of the escapee, or the hauntings of his memories. Gradually, the successive close-ups show that none of the men in this room is asleep. It's such a great moment, and he's such a multi-dimensional character, that I wanted the film to hang together, but it couldn't convince me. Several more learned critics disagree. But I do now want to dive into the rest of Kaurismäki's work, and see the other forms wrought by his auteurship and empathy.