As "The Other Side of Hope" opens, two men are leaving home. One is hiding in a coal compartment on a freighter. The other has just placed his house keys and wedding band on a table in front of an unhappy woman. Both, in a sense, have left everything behind.
Although much of Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki's film takes place in the same city — Helsinki — it sometimes seems as if each of these characters occupies a wildly different planet from the other. Khaled (Sherwan Haji), the man from the freighter, is a Syrian refugee seeking asylum in Finland; Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), a Finnish native, has made a midlife career change by buying a spectacularly failing restaurant.
Upon arriving in the new city, Khaled marches directly to the police station. There, he begins the slog toward freedom, involving a sterile refugee center, lots of interviews and reams of paperwork. Khaled's story plays out like a coolly objective look at the current refugee crisis in Western Europe. Who gets to stay and who must go depends, apparently, on a capricious system: You can't send them all home, but they can't all stay here, either.
Wikström's story, for the most part, seems to take place not just in a different movie, but in an entirely different time period, with sets and costumes — and Kaurismäki's directorial choices — all suggesting the 1960s, not today. Wikström's life and his restaurant represent Old Finland, where the only choice at lunch is meatballs or sardines. For Khaled, on the other hand, Helsinki is a city of imports: One of the first sounds he hears upon arriving is a street musician singing the blues. Khaled's new life includes encounters with Iraqis, Iranians and Somalis. Wikström's world is Finnish to the core.
After the two characters meet — as surely they must — Kaurismäki presents the ensuing clash-and-blend of cultures as representative of Finland's struggle to adapt to a changing world, a struggle that is taking place around the globe. That doesn't mean that every foray into internationalism is a wise one. At one point, Wikström briefly changes his restaurant to a sushi spot, with unhappy results.
For many, Kaurismäki's style might be the equivalent of Finnish sushi: an acquired taste. His camera, for the most part, is static, as are his actors, who often deliver their lines in a flat affect akin to characters from Yorgos Lanthimos's "The Lobster" and "The Killing of a Sacred Deer." Even at a little over 1 ½ hours, "The Other Side of Hope" is not a film for the impatient, featuring long stretches of silence and lingering takes of people's largely-still faces.
Still, the audience's sense of waiting for something to happen makes sense in context, paralleling Khaled's and Wikström's hopeful anticipation that something — anything — will fall into place and move things along more quickly.
It's refreshing to see a film about the refugee crisis that doesn't rely on cliche, but the fact remains: The mundane is mundane. After all, how many people go to the movies to re-create the experience of negotiating a bureaucracy?
Unrated. At Landmark's E Street Cinema. Contains mild violence. In Finnish, English and Arabic with subtitles. 98 minutes.