It's not entirely accurate to say that there is nothing quite like an Aki Kaurismäki film. The languid pacing and deadbeat deadpan that defines the Finnish's auteur's milieu is not entirely dissimilar to Jim Jarmusch's hip, still-to-be-gentrified corner of the space-time continuum. The oddballs with odd vocal patterns who inhabit the Kaurismäkiverse could equally, one feels, be persuaded to settle down in David Lynch's Twin Peaks. Yet unlike these close-enough US equivalents, there's a social, political and ethical engagement underpinning such Kaurismäki favourites as The Match Factory Girl, The Man Without a Past, and, well d'uh, Crime and Punishment.
Following on from 2011's Le Havre, in which an elderly shoe-shine merchant harboured a young African migrant, the second instalment of a proposed port city trilogy follows the migrant trail to Helsinki. Or rather the director's Helsinki, a city defined by candy-coloured formica, old rock'n'rollers, and fish. In a knockout opening gambit, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), a stowaway Syrian asylum seeker, emerges from the black cargo of a coal freighter. How did he get that far from Aleppo, the authorities later enquire: "Nobody wants to see me," he says flatly
Elsewhere, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his alcoholic wife, wins a fortune at poker and buys a failing restaurant called the Golden Pint. It’s a terrible restaurant and he’s not much of a boss: sure, he’s happy to pay union rates to his mostly useless staff, but he has zero acumen for business. Thus, when Khaled is refused asylum (“melancholy ones are the first ones they send back,” warns a Syrian friend), he’s recruited by the Golden Pint to serve what looks like the worst sushi in the world.
His kindly boss also organises a forged ID card and attempts to help him find his sister, his sole surviving relative. You can always depend on the kindness of strangers in The Other Side of Hope, unless, of course, they are Nazis. And sadly, there are Nazis.
For the director's many fans, the dry dialogue, winning performances, musical interludes, and DOP Timo Salminens still tableaux will feel wonderfully familiar. But the urgent subject matter lends weight to a lovely-looking, slow-cooked confection.