Even though this film takes place in Finland, its dealing with refugees gives it a universality that is particular pertinent in light of immigrants struggling to find safety and new lives in countries that will receive them. Take notice, Donald Trump.
Writer-director Aki Kaurismãki, who injects wry humor in his films even when the subject is serious, delivers impressively once again with “The Other Side of Hope.” Khaled, played likably by Sherwan Haji, is a Syrian refugee from death and destruction who smuggles his way into Finland because that’s where the ship on which he stowed away happens to be bound. We see him first when he emerges soot-covered from his hideaway.
Khaled wants to gain asylum and also is determined to find his missing sister and get her to Finland. He has lost track of her and desperately wants friends to locate her. Meanwhile, he goes through the interview process with authorities in hope of being allowed to remain. We see a woman interviewer trying to be understanding but also asking pertinent questions that must be weighed.
Khaled also must find work, and that is where Kaurismãki interweaves human and humorous elements into the story. We meet Wikström (the excellent Sakari Kuosmanen), a traveling shirt salesman who walks out on his alcoholic wife. After placing his keys and his wedding ring on the table, he exits to start a new journey. He buys a restaurant, staffed by incompetents who are a funny lot.
When Wikström discovers the homeless Khaled, he feels sorry for him and gives him a place to sleep in a storage space that he maintains. He also gives him a job in the restaurant, which isn’t doing very well. An extremely funny part of the film involves successive failed attempts to make the restaurant ethnic, with waiters dressed accordingly, as the place shifts ridiculously between Indian and Japanese.
There is also humor in the set-up for preparing a fake ID for Khaled, and a relief when the phony document works. Kaurismãki never loses sight of the human drama and the stakes involved and works up suspense regarding Khaled’s precarious status and the hunt for his sister. Wikström’s life is also about to take another turn. The plot also highlights the hatred by anti-immigrant thugs, one of whom viciously attacks Khaled.
The director never loses the opportunity to wrap events with offbeat humor. “The Other Side of Hope” is a thoroughly engrossing and ultimately uplifting film that strikes a blow in favor of treating refugees properly. It is one of my favorite films of the year. A Janus Films release. Reviewed December 1, 2017.