One of the great pleasures of being an aficionado of auteur cinema lies in the process of gradually discovering a new world—a world created, brick by brick, film by film, by a director over time. The Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki, who made his first narrative feature thirty-five years ago, is a model auteur: from the very start, his films have been firmly marked by a strong directorial personality. Despite the fact that each of his movies is singular and distinct, Aki World (as some have dubbed it) has a compelling coherence, in both content and form. The critic Jonathan Romney once discussed a phenomenon he called the “Kaurismäki effect”: encountering just one film by the director invariably leaves a viewer puzzled by his style and sensibility, but, upon seeing two or three, things gratifyingly begin to click and fall into place. Because his movies supply both the comfort of familiarity and the thrill of surprise, it is especially rewarding to engage with each new Kaurismäki film against the background of his large and rich body of work—thus multiplying the pleasure of appreciation. In addition to this guarantee of interest, Kaurismäki’s seventeenth fiction feature, The Other Side of Hope (2017), which was awarded the best director prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, is also one of his most affecting.
Travel has long been one of Kaurismäki’s favorite themes. Many of his early films center on Finnish men—often alienated from society—who find a way to escape to romantic or utopian destinations, frequently by ship, as in Shadows in Paradise (1986) and Ariel (1988). But these white men, even if they are outsiders on the bottom rungs of society, still possess freedoms that most of the world lacks. Starting with Le Havre (2011) and continuing with The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki switched course by associating travel not with native Finns but with migrants who are people of color. This has been a timely and apt choice on his part, given that we are in the middle of a global displacement crisis on a scale comparable to that of World War II. The United Nations refugee agency estimates that there are now almost sixty-six million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced from their homes. Of those, refugees number over twenty-two million, more than half of whom are under the age of eighteen. (Kaurismäki centered Le Havre on a displaced African child hiding from the authorities in France.) The country that is the leading source of refugees in the world is Syria; twelve million people—half of its prewar population—have been forced from their homes since 2011.
As The Other Side of Hope begins, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a Syrian refugee, arrives in Helsinki, hidden on a coal ship. Having fled his home in Aleppo after losing most of his family in a bomb attack, he has crossed by foot into Turkey, hazarded travel through eastern Europe, and stowed away after being beaten by skinheads. Once in Finland, he chooses to turn himself over to the police, is placed in a detention center, and applies for asylum. He is denied for no good reason—and goes on the lam.
In a parallel, crosscut narrative, a middle-aged shirt wholesaler, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), sells his business and purchases the Golden Pint, an unpromising, run-down restaurant. With much comic bumbling, he and his staff try to make a success of it. When he discovers Khaled sleeping behind a dumpster near the restaurant, he takes him in—after a mock-macho fistfight—and gives him both shelter and employment. He also engineers a reunion between Khaled and his sister Miriam, who were separated during their perilous flight from Syria. Even so, the film ends on a note of suspension: the future remains uncertain for the siblings, as it does for countless refugees like them in the world.
“Kaurismäki is one of fictional cinema’s most respectful chroniclers of labor—from factory work to garbage collection to live musical performance.”
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