An ill-fated restaurant makeover as seen in The Other Side of Hope

When I ranked Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre my fifth favorite film of 2011, I suggested that, “If you need your faith in humanity restored, this film will accomplish that task.” Six years later, the same can be said of Kaurismäki’s excellent new tragic-comedy Toivon tuolla puole (The Other Side of Hope), opening on Friday, Dec. 8 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Building on themes first explored in Le Havre — the plight of refugees, and the way the rest of us respond to it — Kaurismäki’s film moves the action from the faraway French port town to his native Helsinki. The world, it seems, is growing smaller, its problems drawing closer to home.

The story’s protagonist is Khaled (Sherwan Haji), first glimpsed emerging from the coal-laden hold of a cargo ship in the Helsinki docklands. He’s a Syrian mechanic who has fled Aleppo after a missile or bomb — fired or dropped by whom, he neither knows nor cares – destroys his house and kills, with one exception, his entire family.

Covered head to toe in thick, black coal dust, the nearly invisible Khaled is almost run over by the car of shirt salesman Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), who’s just left his alcoholic wife for an uncertain future. This is the last time the film’s main characters will cross paths for the next hour.

After freshening up in a public shower, the thoroughly honest Syrian heads straight to the nearest police station, where he applies for asylum. Placed in temporary refugee housing, he befriends Iraqi Mazdak (Simon Hussein al-Bazoon), whose cellphone becomes the means by which Khaled will try to reconnect with his sister Miriam, last seen in a displacement camp in Lithuania.

Meanwhile, The Other Side of Hope’s parallel story sees Wikström selling off his stock, plowing the proceeds into a high-stakes poker game, and investing his winnings (yes, he wins) in a downscale restaurant named The Golden Pint. It’s not until the sale has been finalized and Khaled denied asylum that the two will meet again, at which point (and without giving too much away), it becomes clear that Wikström is in no hurry to turn over his new acquaintance to the authorities.

It’s also quite clear that Kaurismäki believes there’s no hard decision for the aspiring restaurateur to make: when a fellow human is in need, our first instinct should be to help them. The Other Side of Hope expends absolutely zero time on mixed feelings or tortured moralizing.

Those looking for dramatic flourishes will be disappointed, as the director’s clinical, deadpan style remains fully intact. Don’t think for a minute though, that the film lacks emotion or humor: Khaled’s efforts to reconnect with Miriam are quietly powerful, while scenes set in Wikström’s newly re-styled sushi restaurant are gutbustingly funny despite utilizing neither physical nor verbal comedy.

And as we’d expect from the man who gave us retro-futurist rockers Leningrad Cowboys, there’s that strange blend of folk, rock, and surf music Kaurismäki favors. This time we get to see Finnish musical legend Harri Marstio and a harp playing bluesman whose identity I couldn’t determine, rendering The Other Side of Hope extremely easy on the ears. Withal, it’s one of the year’s best.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...