Deadpan, unhurried, and sensitive, Aki Kaurismäki’s 2017 film The Other Side of Hope tells the story of a young Syrian immigrant, Khaled. A stowaway who debarks in Finland accidentally, Khaled is now in search of his livelihood and his sister, who has been separated from him during the journey. Initially the film runs along double plotlines: in addition to Khaled’s story, we also have the plight of Wikstrom, a middle-aged Finnish shirt salesman who decides suddenly to change his life. He leaves his wife to her cigarettes and her nail polish, disposes of his plastic-wrapped merchandise, and gambles his way into a sum sizeable enough to buy himself a restaurant. These two stories converge quite late in the film. Khaled has been sleeping in a dumpster behind Wikstrom’s restaurant after having escaped the state-run reception center when his request for asylum is denied and deportation looms. The restaurant staff find him and take him in. What the New York Times calls “an old-fashioned humanistic fable” unfolds in a world of more-or-less hapless good will, real and unexpected warmth between characters, makeshift and often hilarious arrangements for help and protection against the forces of state and white nationalist violence, and a scruffy terrier. It’s not difficult to see why any viewer would find the movie a “declaration of faith in people and in movies.”
This description of the film hinges on a spatial binary: human decency and hospitality played out in the restaurant space versus the chill or hostile conditions Khaled finds outside it, in the street or the state-run reception center. But this isn’t how Kaurismäki works with space. (It is certainly not how he works with characters: Kaurismäki also emphasizes the networked community formed by the refugees at the center, which results in Khaled’s sister’s eventual arrival in Finland, as well as the unexpected aid of one reception center employee.) For contrast, we can compare the Helsinki of The Other Side of Hope to the Le Havre of Le Havre (2011), Kaurismäki’s previous film and the first of what has unofficially been called his migrant or refugee trilogy. Both cities are northern port cities. The set-up of both films is the same: a certain person arrives in a strange country by ship. But only Le Havre opens onto the expanse of the sea: there are sunrises, gulls, a scene at a windy camp on a grassy cliffside. Helsinki, on the other hand, is markedly claustrophobic. Natural light is rare; from the moment of Khaled’s arrival, the city is most often seen at night. Many scenes take place underground, in cavernous parking garages or labyrinthine train stations. The atmosphere into which Khaled emerges from a shipment of coal feels consistently grimy and sterile, almost no matter where he is. Wikstrom’s life, too, has a similarly drab backdrop. The apartment from which he leaves, stained and stuffy, is in itself reason enough to make a break for it—but to where?
The problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much light or air anywhere: not in the institutionalized order of the reception center, not in the chilly streets of the city, and not in the austere dimness of its interiors. In other words, an ambient depression seeps pervasively everywhere—even into the restaurant, even though it bears the deceptively chipper name “The Golden Pint.” When we first encounter this space, as Wikstrom decides whether or not to buy it, the cook’s been idle in the kitchen so long that—in a touch of the absurd—he’s been completely cobwebbed-over. At no point in the film does anything served to eat look edible; everything in the restaurant, at least, appears to have been there long past its expiration date. From the shipyard quays to The Golden Pint’s wood paneling and creased tablecloths: this Helsinki is flat, matte, and flimsy, like carpet and plywood erected for a play.
The point of this spatial continuity isn’t that Finland is a singularly dreary country. Rather, these spaces are linked in Kaurismäki’s thorough indictment of a set of institutions: the political, social, economic, and affective mechanisms that work in lockstep against migrants like Khaled wherever they go, despite the actions of well-meaning individuals, wherever these are found. Here again, Le Havre provides a useful contrast. Riffing on the cinematic stereotypes of French social life (the sympathetic café owner, baker, grocer, even police investigator), Kaurismäki points towards the possibility of community life in the café, the home, the street, the small shop, the train platform, the commercial vessel. Shabby but colorful, these are the spaces in which people come together against the law to talk, to scheme, and to hide people. Although there are ominous indications that France is marshaling the full forces of its institutions to “deal with” those who seek asylum or at least temporary respite there, in camps near Calais, the action remains deliberately at the level of the benevolent and intentional individual. Spaces can be carved out—hiding spaces, living spaces—for change and for life.
As in Le Havre, spaces in The Other Side of Hope often become hiding spaces: the possibility of saving evasion isn’t off the table. But we might return to the manifest flimsiness of Kaurismäki’s settings. Things look makeshift and precarious because they are. A closet in a parking garage is a secure sleeping space until it is discovered. The restaurant goes through several more or less disastrous incarnations, becoming a dance hall one night, a doomed sushi spot another. Such quick costume changes are more than gags: there is an important link between the sort of cavalier performance of culinary multiculturalism that leads the Golden Pint to try to save itself via Japanese cuisine, and Khaled’s friend’s admonition to him to put up a cheery face, to smile, because “melancholy ones are the first ones they send back.” The restaurant isn’t the opposite of the reception center but in some sense its double in a different key. Both exist according to the market forces that assign value to bodies and cultures. Both arise or fail according to created demand. Kaurismäki shows how the possibility of cultural and geographical border-crossing is very unevenly distributed along lines of nationality, class, gender, religion, and race: an aging businesswoman won’t take the rest of Wikstrom’s stock because she plans to move to Mexico City, where she will “drink sake and dance the hula hula” (she says, seriously), whereas every single border and cultural difference encountered by Khaled could mean the end of his life.
In other words: Kaurismäki’s Finnish city life is marked by the potential transformation of space at any moment under the saturation of economic, political, and cultural forces. Against the backdrop of this spatial precarity, the “stability” offered by the reception center starts seem absurd: although it’s necessary, what do you do with the consolation of a standard-issue toothbrush and scratchy-looking towel when at any moment this “reception” itself might be revoked? This isn’t just the film’s suggestion. Applications for asylum in Finland fluctuated drastically, rising from 3600 in 2014 to 32,400 in 2015. Now the press releases posted on the Finnish Immigration Service’s website indicate that many reception centers are shutting down. News articles cite decreased demand, although it is difficult to imagine that this means a substantial improvement in the situation.
This brings us to the question of the film’s end, and the future Kaurismäki imagines. Khaled’s prospects are ambiguously hopeful in the last scenes—or are they? Like Jim Jarmusch, to whom he is often compared, Kaurismäki frequently manipulates the odd recurring character, a sort of human motif, to great effect. In The Other Side of Hope, there’s a grey-haired musician, usually a little down on his luck, who sings soulful desperate country songs in Finnish. But there is also a band of white nationalists whose brutal racial violence is almost the film’s last word. There is no place fully reinforced against them. Above all, Kaurismäki emphasizes the general impossibility of safety, of “safe space.” There is no place that is not shot through in some way or another with the economic and political forces that have profited some and displaced many, and continue to do so. This is not only happening in Finland: in the US of early 2018, a film about the inhumanity and pervasive danger of a system that functions to deny asylum and force deportation, even if that film is warm-hearted, should also be deeply unsettling.