Arriving in supposedly liberal Europe, a refugee is hounded by the authorities but saved by a handful of scruffy outsiders. If the scenario of Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope sounds familiar, that might be because it's essentially the same as the plot of its predecessor, 2011's Le Havre. The principal distinction is that the Finnish writer-director's latest comic melodrama is darker and more directly tied to current events.
Le Havre was set in a country constructed largely from fragments of classic French cinema. The Other Side of Hope returns to Helsinki and Kaurismaki's usual retro haunts: the docks, the streets, shabby restaurants, and any place Finnish hipsters perform their takes on American roots music. Both films have a similar tone: simultaneously bemused and outraged, detached and engaged.
As always, Kaurismaki draws from mid-20th-century film noir and "women's pictures," sublimating their agonies and ecstasies into a sort of deadpan minimalism. Sets and shots are deliberately simple, but heightened by lots of music (sometimes amusingly incongruous) and theatrical lighting. The filmmaker's universe is both deeply ordinary and just a little uncanny.
In an unusual move for him, Kaurismaki keeps the two principal characters apart for much of the tale. Syrian emigrant Khaled (Sherwan Haji) quickly materializes, digging himself out of the coal bin in which he hid on his ship journey from Poland. Next enters Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen), grim and purposeful as he abandons his wife and sets out to switch careers from shirt salesman to restaurateur.
Khaled applies for asylum (in English, one of the movie's three languages). Waldemar sells his inventory and heads to a high-stakes poker game to win enough Euros to purchase a restaurant called the Golden Pint. After Khaled's bid is denied, he escapes from the detention center, tangles with three members of the Nazi-like Liberation Army of Finland, and takes refuge behind the trash cans of a nondescript eatery. It's the Golden Pint.
Waldemar gives Khaled a job, in part because he's a nicer guy than we've previously had any occasion to notice. Also, the restaurant owner and his three eccentric employees are just naturally seditious. When a health department team arrives for a surprise inspection, Khaled is not the only thing the crew rushes to conceal. They also hide the restaurant's dog and its ashtrays. Apparently the smoking that's routine for the Golden Pint's regulars is against the rules.
This development, unmentioned in a single line of dialogue, exemplifies the filmmaker's brand of rebellion. One unusually direct moment underscores Khaled's plight with TV-news footage of the carnage in Aleppo, his hometown. But most of the film's defiance is directed toward change. Cigarettes, rockabilly, and mannered old-Hollywood movies are not simply Kaurismaki's passions. They're the planks of his political platform.
In addition to Khaled's search for refuge, the film is driven by his quest to learn the whereabouts of his sister, Miriam (Niroz Haji), who left Syria with him but was separated along the way. Waldemar helps with the search, but Miriam's story is left partly unresolved. Of course, so is Khaled's — and the tales of all the other exiles who inspired The Other Side of Hope.
The director lightens the mood with his customary absurdist slapstick, notably a failed attempt to turn the cafe into a sushi restaurant. But the funniest line is characteristically double-edged. While still in custody, Khaled meets an Iraqi asylum-seeker who counsels him to appear upbeat: "All melancholics are sent back."
By that logic, no one in Finland more deserves deportation than Aki Kaurismaki.