THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

★★★★

CHARMING AND POETIC

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
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 once again telling the story of a refugee encountering a European local. The film follows Syrian refugee Khaled (Sherwan Haji) after he emerges, blackened, from a pile of coal on a ship docked in Helsinki, Finland. He has been wandering 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.

WATCH: 'THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE'

Khaled keeps running into violent hostility alternating with poker-faced 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 and often static by nature. There is nostalgic, popular and Finnish "tango" (ballad-singing) music, and mise en scène is characterised by vintage elements from old cars to typewriters as well as classic Hollywood lighting. This extremely economic narrative means a wordless act such as the placing of a ring on a kitchen table can say more than slab of dialogue. The acting is deadpan and the actors' delivery is laconic to the bone. In terms of tone, Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between tragedy and comedy, cynicism and humanism, melancholy and laughter. Kaurismäki films are known for their dry humour but in this one the humour is so dry it nearly evaporates.

Kaurismäki's film lies securely in between of tragedy and comedy, cynicism and humanism, melancholy and laughter.

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 without a need to announce it. They are the global working class with no nation. They are a plural bunch whose shared humanity overcomes individual differences. In a key scene echoing ‘Le Havre’, there is a moving montage of human faces as the refugees in the reception centre listen to a wordless ballad by Khaled.

While ‘The Other Side Of Hope’ is unapologetically moral and political in its message and agenda, 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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