Recently, a friend of mine arrived back in Australia from Finland and told me that Helsinki was a city that had come of age around industrial design, and a city that still felt like a “design hub” – if a somewhat dated design hub – at heart. It was an observation that resonated with my love for Aki Kaurismaki’s films, virtually all of which are set in Helsinki, and virtually all of which feel like a sustained riff upon this design heritage. In fact, so consistently and incrementally has Kaurismaki built up his particular worldview in these depictions of his native city (chosen as the World Design Capital in 2012) that his work often feels like one film that gradually evolves over time. In some ways, those evolutions have become more minimal and more nuanced as his filmography has proceeded, not unlike the later works of Yasujiro Ozu, culminating with his great Finland Trilogy of Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past, and Lights in the Dusk.
At the same time, however, there’s been a more sudden and anarchic shift in his recent work, with Le Havre taking us outside of Helsinki altogether for Kaurismaki’s first film to be set in France, and The Other Side of Hope looking at Helsinki from the perspective of Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian immigrant who ends up in Finland somewhat by chance, where he forms an unlikely alliance with Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a middle-aged Finnish man who has (temporarily) left his wife in order to fulfil his dreams of opening up a restaurant in the dockland area of Helsinki. If the Finland Trilogy reminded me of the late inflections in Ozu’s mise-en-scene, then these last two films are perhaps akin to Ozu’s first uses of colour cinematography, since while all of Kaurismaki’s artistic signatures remain intact, they blossom into a joy and exuberance that is quite new in his career.
That’s not exactly to say that The Other Side of Hope is a consistently upbeat film, however, since its power depends partly upon its underlying continuities with Kaurismaki’s earlier body of work. Here, as there, it feels as if every space and scenario in Helsinki has a slightly prefabricated, prepackaged quality, and that things have been placed and position to be just so, with the the result that the characters, in turn, feel trapped in a series of mise-en-scenes that are just a little too cheery and just a little too forced in their cinematic stylisation. The effect is all the more absurd in that this décor, composition and prefabricated cheer is quite mild and gentle – inoffensive and inauspicious as an IKEA table – and yet it is that mildness and gentleness that makes it so difficult to elude. Hence Kaurismaki’s perennial shot of characters looming and leaning forward towards the camera, as if trying to make the most of the classical Hollywood composition within which they find themselves while also trying to escape or register something beyond this mildly pervasive sense of pastiche as well.
The result is to evoke a world in which some collusion of Finnish design principles and classical Hollywood framing have rendered human figures redundant, so totally do these spaces seem to pre-empt and orchestrate any possible poses and positions, forcing Kaurismaki’s characters to straddle and stare these spaces right in the eye in order to gain any hope or semblance of autonomy. For that reason, there’s something inherently liminal about Kaurismaki’s spaces, as if each room or tableau were poised on the frontier of its own imminent, cheery refabrication and dissemination. Combined with the Hollywood atmosphere, that tends to give Kaurismaki’s films a western kind of vibe, in which saloons, jukeboxes, gambling parlours, rockabilly singers and honktyonk décor are comically and improbably grafted onto his Helsinki backdrop, as if gesturing towards a line of flight, a threshold to more expansive horizons, that his characters can never quite seem to achieve.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the almost obsessive preponderance of smoking across Kaurismaki’s films, which on the one hand seems to function as the degree zero of this prefabricated affect – characters trapped in photographic poses, cigarette in hand – but which at the same time subsumes his characters into a trance state that sees them staring or gazing across some great expanse unavailable in Helsinki. Not surprisingly, then, that has rendered Kaurismaki’s films particularly amenable to the dissolution of European boundaries and borders that has occurred with the escalating refugee crisis of the last decade. That tendency is particularly clear in Le Havre, his first film to be shot outside Finland, which presented this New Europe as a new kind of western, but it’s even more emphatic here, since while Kaurismaki may have returned to his home country for The Other Side of Hope, it feels as if we are even further away from the Helsinki of his earlier films, devoid of a single sustained conversation in Finnish until a third of the way through.
At the same time, this frontier vibe has always meant that Kaurismaki’s characters have been desperate to escape Helsinki, or to transcend Helsinki, if only by transforming it into somewhere else. For all their prefab cheer, then, his fixtures are always somewhat dated – if only because they are clearly designed to avoid datedness – and that’s more the case in The Other Side of Hope than ever before, with Khaled’s asylum crisis and Wikstrom’s mid-life crisis revolving around the “Restaurant Golden Pint,” a daggy 70s bar that seems more antiquated than nearly any other space in Kaurismaki’s filmography to date. Here, the self-deprecatingly droll depictions of Helsinki that have preoccupied him for the last thirty years bloom and blossom into a more profound and soulful sense of comedy, as if he has finally and decisively rejected his home city, or found a way to escape his home city, by way of the escalating refugee crisis, and potential influx of other cultures, traditions and sensibility.
In other words, without ever trivialising the plight of asylum seekers – or blandly assimilating them – Kaurismaki suggests that the new porosity of Europe (and influx of Middle Eastern refugees in particular) is just what Helsinki needs – and has always needed – to preclude its deadening collapse into its own prefabricated self. Far from being presented as a problem to be solved, refugees are instead the solution to the problem that has occupied all Kaurismaki’s films – how to disassemble the prefabricated positivity and commodified conformity that imprisons his characters, and in turn dissociate them from Helsinki, Finland and Europe as a whole without reimprisoning them in the classical Hollywood tropes of America either. Throughout The Other Side of Hope, it’s clear that asylum seekers are doing Finland the most profound favour by coming there in the first place – the droller implication is that Helsinki should be prepared to accept anyone willing to endure it – even or especially as Khaled has only turned up in Helsinki by accident, originally intending to remain in Poland.
Without ever dismissing their plight, then, Kaurismaki is one director who finds the wave of refugees on Helsinki – and Europe’s – doorstep genuinely liberating, appealing to Finland to show them safe harbour as “a country of equality, with good people, that has had its own refugees”. While Helsinki may be presented as a frontier for refugees, then, The Other Side of Hope blithely asserts that refugees have as much or a right to inhabit this frontier as the Finns (or, at least, that they can’t be any more displaced than the Finns). Similarly, in lieu of a regular refugee narrative in which the displacement of the refugees is offset by the stability of the “native” inhabits, here those original inhabitants have always been fringe-dwellers anyway – at least in Kaurismaki’s universe – and Wikstrom is no exception, which is perhaps why he instantly and unthinkingly does everything in his power to assist Khaled.
For that reason, Khaled never feels displaced by the aesthetic of the film, while the incongruity between Aleppo and Helsinki is never really stressed; it’s simply accepted that they both form part of the same new iteration of Europe, and that Finland isn’t exempt – or more European – in any kind of privileged way. From the perspective of an English viewer, too, it’s interesting to note that while at least half of the film is spoken in English, it never really feels like a film in English. Far from being a stable or universal language – or a synecdoche for an older, more nostalgic version of Europe – English here is merely a provisional meeting point between Finnish and Arabic, in an interesting counterpoint to the role played by English (and English subtitles) in Michael Haneke’s Happy End, another contemporary portside drama with the refugee crisis as its backdrop.
It make sense, then, that The Other Side of Hope becomes less about eluding the Finnish authorities than eluding Finnish spaces – and the prefabricated tendencies of all Kaurismaki’s spaces – an activity that unites Khaled and Wikstrom, and brings out a wilder, more anarchic side to Kaurismaki’s comedy than I’ve ever seen before. This culminates with a wonderful sequence in which Wikstrom tries to turn his Finnish restaurant into a sushi joint, which on the one hand works as a wonderfully wry calibration of Kaurismaki’s minimalism against Japanese aestheticism, but which is also a bit like seeing Kaurismaki offer up a parodically gentrified version of his mise-en-scenes, a superficial refurbishment that just reiterates their underlying sameness and prefabrication. Clearly, his version of Helsinki needs more than yet another design overhaul, or another coat of paint, and that’s pretty much what he offers in the film’s magnificent final shot.
Without giving too much away, this shot present Khaled in the position and attitude typical of Kaurismaki’s regular protagonists, but with two critical differences. First, he’s outside – and not in one of the stylised “outside” spaces of Kaurismaki’s Helsinki, but in a situation that genuinely looks as if it is filmed on location, as he reclines against a tree overlooking the River Vantaa, with a cigarette in his mouth. Second, the import of this shot is so open in narrative terms that it’s like watching an emergent, incomplete or fragmented mise-en-scene that can’t and won’t be assimilated to Kaurismaki’s standardised version of Finland. At the very moment that Khaled finally fully occupies a quintessential Kaurismaki shot, then, he denatures it from the inside, until it is almost as if Kaurismaki has found his own line of flight from his own filmography in this final gesture, as well as a moment of blossoming promise for Finland and Europe. For me, that makes The Other Side of Hope the defining film in Kaurismaki’s body of work – at least at this point – and an achievement some thirty years in the making.