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The Other Side of Hope – Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

There is a slow, quiet magic to the films of Aki Kaurismäki (Le Havre, The Man Without a Past) that allows the viewer to be lulled into the idea that there is just a simple story going on with some dry humor and then it turns out one is watching a scathing indictment of society dressed up as a slow moving dramatic tale. With The Other Side of Hope, the director maintains that skill and applies it to a story about a Syrian refugee and a Finnish shirt salesperson separately attempting to change the courses of their respective lives. It is an odd film that requires attention, patience, and a likely a second viewing to fully soak it up.

Film 

The Other Side of Hope starts with a nearly silent scene of shirt salesperson Waldemar, played by Kaurismäki-regular Sakari Kuosmanen (Juha, The Man Without a Past), leaving his wife while she sits at the kitchen table. The emotions are conveyed through frustrated and exasperated body language and this is a great way to set the tone for how characters will be communicating throughout the rest of the film. Kaurismäki films have a tendency to be sparse on dialogue and long on straight on shots of characters thinking or steeling themselves before they take action. So when this film begins with action being taking, it is clear that a lot of the thinking has already been done. Waldemar eventually starts to sell off his stock of shirts so he can make enough to finance his dream of opening a restaurant. Meanwhile, the other main character, Khaled, played by newcomer Sherwan Haji, steps out from the coal load of a freighter ship and introduces himself to the local authorities as a refugee seeking asylum from the civil war in Syria.

Khaled spends a bit of time in a refugee detainment center where he befriends others in a similar position to his own while he awaits his hearing. Khaled’s story is horrific and he is made to repeat it in great detail to the Finnish authorities in order to justify his claim for asylum. This is all portrayed by Haji in a cold and unflinching performance as the camera sits still and uncomfortable directly on him. When not sitting in the detention center, Khaled and his new friend Mazdak, an Iraqi refugee, share stories of their lives out at local establishments.

Eventually the two main stories, those of Waldemar and his restaurant and Khaled and his desire for a safe place to live as well as reunification with the only other surviving member of his family, his sister, coincide in hilarious fashion when Waldemar and Khaled find themselves in a bit of a scrap near the dumpsters of the restaurant. Waldemar hires Khaled and tries to aid him in any way he can. The story is very non-standard and the slow, plodding nature of how it is told works to establish an odd business-like tone for a very heavy subject matter. But by the end of the film, all of the elements really work together, much like the two main characters themselves.

The Other Side of Hope is well shot, well acted, well scored, and very well timed. It is a poignant story of people in need against a world that would shove them aside and it was made and released exactly when this kind of commentary will be most felt. Though this is a comedy of sorts, it has a longing sadness that runs through it. Though, if one has seen any of Kaurismäki’s other films, this style will be familiar and invited. There isn’t much to really critique about this release. The film is most definitely not for everyone, as its presentation may feel boring and slow to some, however it is consistent with the director’s style and it highlights the issues to which the film is trying to bring attention by allowing the characters to live situations within the frame of an apathetic world. It really works well and stays funny throughout the bleakness and I loved it.

Another thing The Other Side of Hope does well is it adds these short musical interludes played by either a small band in a club or a lone musician on the street. It might seem like the shots of the music go on too long or that they are taking away from the story being told, but after the second one it becomes fairly clear that they are part of the story being told and absolutely belong. They are just another part of this unique blend that director Kaurismäki brings to this film that makes it something special to watch. The Other Side of Hope is a slow, poignant, funny, biting critique and, as presented beautifully in this Criterion release, it is a must-view kind of film.

Video 

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Clarity/Detail: Flawlessly clear and detailed.

Depth: Good depth when noticeable, especially in the few outdoor scenes.

Black Levels: Black levels are solid and inky.

Color Reproduction: Color is reproduced accurately. Though the film does have a bit of a washed out palette. That, however, is intentional, not a product of poor blu-ray production

Flesh Tones: Flesh looks fleshy

Noise/Artifacts: No noise/artifacting at all.

Audio 

Audio Format: French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Subtitles: English

Dynamics: Sound dynamism is mostly felt in scenes where music is being played, as this is a somewhat quiet and restrained film otherwise. But, it sounds glorious.

Low Frequency Extension: Not a lot of use here, but when there are low sounds, they sound right.

Surround Sound Presentation: Good surround presentation, with effects coming in clear and where they sound like they should be.

Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is very clear and crisp. The film is in French, so it is necessary to pick out different sound details than English and this blu-ray does an excellent job.

Extras 

-Sherwan Haji (15 min, HD) – An interesting interview with actor Sherwan Haji in which he details being cast in The Other Side of Hope. He talks about his real life journey as a Syrian fleeing to Finland and how that affected his role in the film.

-Aki Kaurismaki at the Berlin Film Festival (29 min, HD) Footage form an interview at the Berlin Film Festival where The Other Side of Hope won Silver Bear Award for Best Director. The director and some of the cast talk about production and story elements. Pretty good bit of info about the behind-the-scenes process.

-Aki and Peter (12 mins, HD) – A dedication to film critic Peter von Bagh, who was a close friend with director Aki Kaurismäki. Filmmaker Daniel Raimtakes the audience through Kaurismäki films as commentedupon by von Bagh. Nice to watch. It may be too short, since it seems like this relationship between the two people was rich and could have a full film to really show the details.

-Music Videos – Four music videos of songs from the interludes in The Other Side of Hope: “Kaipunni Tango,” “Midnight Man,” “Skulaa Tai Felaa,” and “Tama Maa.” Pretty neat to hear the songs again.

-Illustrated Essay – by critic Girish Shambu.

-Trailer (2 min, HD) – A trailer for the film.

Summary 

The Other Side of Hope is a very good film with a lot to say about an ongoing geopolitical situation. It is sweet and slow and quiet and funny and it does a good job of portraying realized characters in a realistic world. The film, like many foreign and independent films that Criterion releases, is not going to appeal to a huge audience, but it is worth a watch and this release fills it with extra material and a clean video transfer so that those who are interested to watch are given a reason to come back for more. Criterion rarely falters and this is another great one from their vaults. Watch it with some friends and have a nice talk about it afterward to warm up from the cold presentation.

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I like to be challenged to think about things, so I studied Philosophy in college. Now I am paying for it.

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