By Jake Watt
4th June 2017

After sitting down in a cinema in Sydney's Paddington to watch Aki Kaurismäki's 'The Other Side Of Hope' and scrunching up my legs so an old man could squeeze past me, my friend nudged my elbow. "Do you smell that...?" she whispered. "That, ugh... smell? I have a very sensitive nose."

"Nope," I replied, taking a sip of coffee from a disposable cup. I couldn't smell anything and I wasn't eager to change seats now that the film was starting.

Bad decision.

When it was announced after the release of Finnish director's Aki Kaurismäki's last film - the charming, multiple award-winning 'Le Havre' (2011) - that it would be followed by another film covering similar topics and themes, fans of world cinema have been eagerly waiting for his next effort.

Six years later, we get 'The Other Side Of Hope' (2017), a film with a timely political message that follows Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji). We first meet him as he emerges, blackened, from a pile of coal on a ship docked in Helsinki, Finland. He has been drifting all over Eastern Europe trying to find his sister, the last survivor beside himself of his Syrian family. He, of course, speaks no Finnish so has to communicate with Finns in English. We also watch a parallel story about a gruff Finnish man (played by Kaurismäki regular Sakari Kuosmanen) who leaves his wife, sells his business and starts up a restaurant which eventually leads him to meet Khaled.


Khaled keeps running into violent hostility alternating with benevolent kindness and... wait, there actually was a weird smell in this cinema!

I strained my olfactory senses to pinpoint where it was coming from. Suddenly, I heard the old man six seats to the left of me let out a tiny, stealthy belch. Then another and another. With each micro-burp the high, sweet stench of digestive juices floated down the row with renewed strength. I tried to snap my concentration back onto the film.

Timo Salminen's cinematography is on point in 'The Other Side Of Hope' with excellent use of framing and colours, as well as classic Hollywood lighting. An extremely bare bones narrative means a wordless act such as the placing of a ring on a kitchen table can say more than a hunk of dialogue. The acting is deadpan and the actors' delivery is fittingly laconic. In terms of tone, Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between tragedy and humour of the driest kind.

Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between tragedy and humour of the driest kind.

About an hour into the hour-and-a-half film, we had moved several seats over to try and escape the belcher, who I assumed had a reflux problem. Still, the odour stalked us through the theatre, creeping over empty seats. My abdominal muscles clenched as if I had been doing stomach crunches. I used my empty coffee cup as a makeshift gasmask, holding it over my mouth and nose. Still, that frog-like "burp... burpburpburp" sound came faintly from my left. Glancing to my right, I noticed my friend was slumped sideways in her seat, leaning towards the exit. Was this smell bad enough to render someone unconscious? I turned and stared dumbly ahead at the screen.

The strangers of 'The Other Side Of Hope' find comrades in each other seemingly without effort, perhaps because they are the global working class whose shared humanity overcomes individual differences. In a key scene echoing 'Le Havre', we see a montage of human faces as the refugees in the reception centre listen sadly to a wordless ballad by Khaled.

While 'The Other Side Of Hope' is bluntly moral and political in its message, it also comes across as a good piece of cinema with poetry all of its own, I thought, cradling my churning stomach. Then the film ended and the credits began to roll, I lurched out of my seat and burst through the cinema doors, gasping, inhaling cool, fresh air.

Looking for more Sydney Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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