Review: An unlikely friendship in a mixed bag of a film

Tom Long
The Detroit News

“The Other Side of Hope” is a decidedly odd duck of a film.

It’s a serious look at the trials of refugees. It’s a slapstick work of deadpan humor. It’s a surreal, almost Lynchian bare-bones existential work at the same time that it’s an amateur-hour exercise in stiff drama. It pauses here and there to showcase blues musicians in Finland. That’s right, blues musicians in Finland. Who know there was such a thing?

The people in Finland, assumedly. That’s where “The Other Side of Hope” takes place. The film follows two storylines that eventually intersect. In storyline A, we have Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a refugee from Syria who stowed away on a ship destined for Finland. Upon arrival he goes to the authorities, seeking asylum.

In storyline B, there’s Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen), a Finnish traveling salesman who decides to cash in his life and buy a restaurant, despite knowing nothing about restaurants. The place he buys serves meals like sardines and boiled potatoes. Yum.

The restaurant comes with its own somewhat bizarre staff and a limited number of customers. Wikstrom tries to improve things by turning it into a sushi place. Then he brings in live music. All of this is played for fun, though nobody in Finland seems given to smiling.

At the same time Khaled is having a rough go of it. The Finnish government decides Syria isn’t a dangerous enough place — even while violence in Syria is on the nightly news — so Khaled will have to be sent back. Khaled disagrees with this assessment and makes a run for it. But life on the streets is dangerous; skinheads lurk everywhere.

Eventually Khaled and Wikstrom meet. And a kind of new family of misfits is born.

Writer-director Aki Kaurismaki has a herky-jerky style that cuts suddenly from scene to scene, from humor to drama, from subtle to broad. Some scenes look like they were staged by a high school drama class, at times the production design and lighting are stunningly stark. It’s often difficult to tell whether the talent pool in Finland is perilously shallow or Kaurismaki just wants things to feel and look so awkward.

At the same time, “The Other Side of Hope” is dealing with matters of import — dislocation, both personal and physical, the persistence of hope, the need for change. Its oddball perspective and pacing work as its charm. And the Finnish blues musicians are actually pretty good.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

‘The Other Side of Hope’

GRADE: B-

Not rated

Running time: 100 minutes