How can lighting be tragicomic? Is it possible that the way you light the room can make you laugh while still simultaneously making you feel melancholic? It doesn’t seem like something that should be possible, yet that’s somehow what Aki Kaurismaki manages in The Other Side of Hope. His film is supremely visual, utilising colour, blocking and, yes, lighting to almost unrivalled effect. Every frame serves the story he’s telling and creates an enchanting mood of poignant, bittersweet humour.
The Other Side of Hope tells two stories, one of a recently divorced man named Wikström buying a terrible restaurant, the other of a refugee, Khaled, who has arrived in Finland by hiding in a mound of coal on a shipping liner. Neither of them have that much hope, but as their stories begin to intersect they are slowly drawn out of their hopelessness.
Kaurismaki made the best film of 2012, a short in the portmanteau film Historic Centre. His tale was of an old man running an unsuccessful restaurant; the lead character’s utter haplessness was both hilarious and heartbreaking. Wikström’s story here feels like a natural continuation of that short, mining laughs from the shabbiness of the diner and the uselessness of the staff. Once again, the tone shifts elegantly between broad laughs and sympathy for Wikström’s loneliness. There’s something so utterly pathetic about an ex-shirt salesman with no business nous living above a crappy pub, but Kaurismaki isn’t laughing at him, he’s inviting us to emotionally connect with him while still embracing the farce of it all. Kaurismaki doesn’t just allow for both responses to his film, he practically demands it.
Where The Other Side of Hope really lands emotionally, however, is in the story following Khaled. It’s the reason it’ll probably win the Golden Bear at the Berlinale and gives it the possibility of a wider audience beyond the director’s usual fanbase. Sherwan Haji’s warm, restrained performance effortlessly conveys the confusion, sadness and tentative, daring hope as Khaled attempts to forge a new life in Finland. One of the most powerful moments comes when Khaled is being interviewed for his asylum application. The static camera gazes, unflinchingly, at Haji’s face as he impassively relays his harrowing tale of travelling from Aleppo to Finland. There’s no weepy score or slow zoom to trick the audience into feeling Khaled’s pain; Kaurismaki instead allows basic humanity and the power of his story to do that for you, instead.
The Other Side of Hope lives up to its title and does offer something that looks almost like hope. It’s a formal masterclass in visual storytelling and most of the jokes come from the way the film is made. American comedy, take note. Yet beyond its form, The Other Side of Hope is so delightful because of the warmth and gentle compassion that courses through the film as its lifeblood. There are racist thugs as dispassionate bureaucrats in the story, but Kaurismaki mostly populates his world with people happy to help out, quick to be kind and who acknowledge the dignity of everyone. For all of its deadpan, downbeat humour, this is a film that earns the old reviewing cliché: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry.