Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 29, 2017 12:47 pm 
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Crossing paths

In this new movie as in his last one (made in 2011), Kaurismäki is working in his signature style, with his usual actors (or sad sacks from the same mold), deadpan dialogue, bright colors, dominant blues and greens, direct lighting on actors, sharp images, ironically clear camerawork and editing and bright live old fashioned rock music. But again there's a big change from the old Kaurismäki. The gloom is missing.

And we may miss that gloom, its quiet beauty and dry sadness. Some even think its absence a betrayal. But I would argue they are wrong, that the filmmaker is flourishing in this new mode, and has lost none of his chops. But there is, certainly, a new focus: Kaurismäki is looking at one of the worst problems we face: the global refugee crisis. While the superstar artist Ai Weiwei's wide-ranging documentary this year, Human Flow, exhaustively described this problem, it provided no solutions. The Finn has a simple one he's advancing in these films: let each of us light our own little candle. This may not be much. But half a loaf is better than none.

A friend who now lives in Sweden once explained to me, when we saw Kaurasmaki's film before Le Havre, Lights in the Dusk (2006) in Paris, how visiting Finland and meeting Finnish people had greatly enlarged his appreciation of the Kaurismäkian oeuvre and mood. But without that I've grasped one thing: this is one of the world's unique cinematic stylists. Before you decide what your reaction to this movie is, or say anything, I suggest you warm up on the language - not Finnish, that would take more time - but watch several more of his films. They will grow on you.

Initially the language may seem thin, minimal, parsimonious, but the more you see how distinctive and consistent his world is, the richer it becomes. They're full-on movies. What goes on is visual, narrative, psychological, musical. These movies are full of music, background music whose wonderfully seedy makers turn out to be right on screen. The Other Side of Hope is simply a continuation of a new direction, more "positive," if you like, perhaps the second in a trilogy about refugees, the first being the 2011 Le Havre (NYFF 2011 , about the port, and an African boy who washes up into it and is protected by a beat-up and impoverished old Frenchman who shines shoes. That's the bare bones of the story, but there are rich echoes and sounds. The Other Side of Hope has a grown-up Syrian refugee. Instead of a shiner of shoes, it has a shirt salesman who gets lucky and buys a run-down restaurant.

The style is pervaiive, and the delight is in the typically deadpan depiction of Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), as he leaves his wife, and goes off in his big black Checker car. (To tune into this film is to notice that car, and then to love it: so simple, so solid, so perfect, so out of time). Slowly but surely, in a series of deft, minimal scenes, Wikström disburses his sales stock of shirts, enters a poker game, gets lucky, wins a bundle, and decides to buy a little restaurant called The Golden Pint. A good investment? Hell, no. It's been failing and the previous owner takes off to the airport owing the staff. Efforts at rebranding the place with sushi and other cuisines are quietly howling failures. (Lights in the Dusk was the end of Kaurismäki's "Loser Trilogy," but there is always a loser.) Pascal Mérigeau of Le Nouvel Observateur, cited on AlloCiné, writes of "the sublime parsimony of the shot that lasts only just as long as is necessary." This is true. Like Antonioni, Kaurismäki proves on film what Mies' dictum "Less is more" means. And Mérigeau goes on, "those notes of sad and smiling irony that belong only to this filmmaker and to none other, so hard in appearance, so sweet at their heart."

In Kaurismäki, success (and Wikström seems to be having, sort of, a string of them) has a way of looking much like failure. But conversely failure isn't that far from success. The filmmaker himself may be seen as the maker of a string of failures that, viewed more closely, are gems.

Meanwhile, we meet Khaled, the Syrian refugee (Sherwan Haji), who turns up on a boatload of coal, covered with black ash. He washes it off at a town public bath, a symbolic rebirth. He meets an Iraqi waiting to be granted status, Mazdak (Simon Al-Bazoon), and gets some advice germane to our filmmaker's world: look happy, he says; the sad sacks get sent home. But don't be smiling or laughing on the street: they'll think you're crazy. Indeed they will, here, of all places. If there's one thing we learn from Kaurismäki it's that Finns are deadpan sorts. The Arab actors fit the mold. Khaled has a serene, inexpressive manner. Like La Fontaine's reed, he bends, but does not break: he is repeatedly attacked by Finnish white nationalist bigots, but somehow he seems to survive. The court decides - with enormous irony - that Syria is in no danger (the local TV news shows the devastation and atrocity rife there) - and handcuffs Khaled to send him home to Aleppo tomorrow.

Khaled escapes, and hiding, is found by Wikström and hired to work in the Golden Pint. Wikström in effect adopts Khaled, hides, protects him, and gives him a fake ID a techie young man grinds out magically from a little machine as utilitarian in its more modern way as the Checker car.

Like Wikström, Khaled is selfless too, because his concern isn't so much for himself as for his sister Miriam (Niroz Haji), who has disappeared, while all the rest of their family were killed in a bombardment. He is convinced she is alive somewhere, and is bent on finding her. Marzak's cell phone is the opening conduit in a new version of "le téléphone arabe": passing news by word of mouth. It works. This is an upbeat story with a difference, because while there is hope for Miriam, Khaled is still the target of the brutal racists.

This description does little justice to the film. One enjoys the tale of Wikström and his cohorts, savoring the Kaurismäkian style, seeing Khaled and Mazdak as a mere flutter under the surface, though what one savors is how subtly the two stories are gradually linked - the way the tale of a refugee's survival in a strange land is woven into a thoroughly Kaurismäkian display. In fact this shows Kaurismäki working in peak form. Some still complain that the upbeat mood and the concern with World Issues are betrayals, but somehow this film has gotten the best reception from critics the mournful Finn has ever had.

The combination of Kaurismäki and hope for refugees, however welcome or not, is a strange one, no doubt. But it seems to be working.

The Other Side of Hope/Toivon tuolla puolen, 100 mins., debuted at Berlin Feb. 2017 and has shown at 30 international festivals, including Telluride, Toronto, and the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center 5 Oct. 2017. It opens in US theaters 1 Dec. 2017 and comes to the SF Bay Area 8 Dec.



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