Arriving in supposedly liberal Europe, a refugee is hounded by the authorities but saved by a handful of scruffy outsiders. If the scenario of Aki Kaurismaki's The Other Side of Hope sounds familiar, that might be because it's essentially the same as the plot of its predecessor, 2011's Le Havre. The principal distinction is that the Finnish writer-director's latest comic melodrama is darker and more directly tied to current events.
Le Havre was set in a country constructed largely from fragments of classic French cinema. The Other Side of Hope returns to Helsinki and Kaurismaki's usual retro haunts: the docks, the streets, shabby restaurants, and any place Finnish hipsters perform their takes on American roots music. Both films have a similar tone: simultaneously bemused and outraged, detached and engaged.
As always, Kaurismaki draws from mid-20th-century film noir and "women's pictures," sublimating their agonies and ecstasies into a sort of deadpan minimalism. Sets and shots are deliberately simple, but heightened by lots of music (sometimes amusingly incongruous) and theatrical lighting. The filmmaker's universe is both deeply ordinary and just a little uncanny.
In an unusual move for him, Kaurismaki keeps the two principal characters apart for much of the tale. Syrian emigrant Khaled (Sherwan Haji) quickly materializes, digging himself out of the coal bin in which he hid on his ship journey from Poland. Next enters Waldemar (Sakari Kuosmanen), grim and purposeful as he abandons his wife and sets out to switch careers from shirt salesman to restaurateur.