We open inside the dank hull of a coal freighter — only these lumps have eyes. Khaled Ali’s (Sherwan Haji) peepers blink awake as the stowaway sits up in the lumpy bed of black that’s acted as first-class steerage to Finland for lo these many days. It’s a grand cartoon gag — by far this year’s most imaginative character introduction — and the perfect prefatory path, designed to ease our crossover into director Aki Kaurismäki’s wise and gentle comedy The Other Side of Hope.
In another part of the jungle, middle-aged traveling salesman and world-class fusspot Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) deposits his house keys and wedding ring on the kitchen table before throwing his wife one last dirty look and closing the door behind him. Without a word, she takes a moment to examine the ring before dropping it in the ashtray. Imagine the austere likes of French formalist Robert Bresson with a contrary sense of humor, and you’ll get a sense of which way this comedy of misdirection is headed.
Khaled strolls the streets in a state befitting one of John Ford’s green-valley miners. So dark that he can hide in the night, it’s no wonder that the first time the salesman (almost) runs into him is with the bumper of his car. The two won’t officially be introduced until halfway through the picture, when Waldemar finds a bruised and beaten Khaled in the alley behind his recently acquired restaurant. In the meantime, Kaurismäki (The Match Factory Girl, Le Havre) wisely uses the first hour to quietly upend the audience’s expectations.
The first two sentences Khaled speaks end with question marks. A passerby answers the first by pointing him in the direction of a public bath house where he’s quick to turn the shower spray black before hitting the tiled floor. “Are you sure?” a transit officer replies to Khaled’s second request, this one concerning the whereabouts of the nearest police station. Is the lad wanting to turn himself in for a crime he’s committed, or is this a simple case of a Syrian refugee looking to seek asylum in a sanctuary city?
The thick-headed desk sergeant gives him a interview of sorts — the copper’s lips move at the same speed as his fingers as they methodically hunt and peck at the typewriter keys. But it isn’t until Khaled is transferred to a reception center that he brings a government official (and the audience) up to speed on his situation. It seems that several months ago, he returned home from his job as a mechanic to find that a missile of unknown origin had left his home in ruins. The blast killed everyone in his family, save for his sister Miriam, who he believes is sequestered nearby.
A chorus of gypsy buskers, strumming mandolin strings as they croon about sleeping in the cold ground, provide much of the film’s bouncy background score. Khaled removes belt and shoes before entering a holding cell he shares with an Iraqi man who promises to help him find Miriam. They pause for a smoke break long enough for the focus to shift back to the disillusioned salesman who offers to sell his stock for 50 cents on the dollar to one of his clients, played by Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen (The Man Without a Past). She, too, is in the market for a change of life. (Every character contributes their share to the film’s offbeat sense of humor.) After years of peace and quiet, she can’t wait to retire to a life of sipping sake and dancing the hula.
Waldemar eventually sells his inventory and, after making a killing at the poker table, decides to pursue his lifelong dream of opening a restaurant. A trio of employees come with the deal: a greasy doorman (Ilkka Koivula) clad in an inapropos red bellboy jacket, a chain-smoking chef (Timo Torikka) who slings a ladle over his shoulder as John Wayne would a rifle butt, and a heretofore unpaid intern (Nuppu Koivu) who has the audacity to ask her boss what his friends call him. His answer — “I have no friends” — comes as no surprise.
Behind his back, the trio questions his ability to run the place. As well they should. The film’s most successful running gag involves the chameleon-like nature of the establishment — the fare rapidly changing from ale house to Indian cuisine to a sushi bar that runs out of raw fish. They figure enough wasabi will kill the taste of salty herring.
Once the authorities have decided that repatriation is the only way to go, Khaled chooses to make a run for it rather than return to Aleppo. It’s here where Khaled lands a job as the fourth member of Waldemar’s waitstaff and a home in his boss’s vacant storage locker. Reels go by before any more mention is made of Khaled’s sister. Once he’s established an identity, even a fake one, Khaled can get back to searching for her.
Neither of our heroes come equipped with a sense of humor, which makes the comedy that much funnier. By his own admission, Khaled doesn’t understand humor, a fact that’s hammered home when the kid forging his ID card asks if he should check male or female.
The more well-intentioned among us would have preferred spending two hours fixating on Khaled’s bleak past. Kaurismäki looks to the future with an off-kilter crazy bone that prevents the film from ever becoming maudlin or preachy. One couldn’t help but think of the obvious, heavy-handed messaging we’d be spared if all directors followed Kaurismäki’s expert smuggling techniques.