As the regularity of NYFF screenings sinks in, Aki Kaurismäki’s new film The Other Side of Hope is a tone change we didn’t know we needed.
First, to dispel any myths: film critics don’t know how to watch movies any better than you do. As the first week of the New York Film Festival begins to wrap up, more seats in Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade theater are filled each day, but the pretension is still surprisingly low.
Unlike some European festivals like Cannes or Venice, NYFF begins screenings for press and industry officials ten days early, meaning that every head in the room is assumed to be taking in the details with extreme cultural attenuation. Perhaps the simple act of watching is just too passive, but I have little evidence that anyone’s taking these films in more strenuously than average. If anything, the collective comportment would show that regulars of the theater behave just like regulars at the bar or coffee shop – they start feeling like they can get away with more. Phone-checking is, if anything, more rampant than usual, as is mid-movie chatter. My third day here, I’ve found myself paying as much attention to the crowd watching as the movies themselves.
But it’s also hard to blame people for their tics and habits – such as the man sucking consecutive hard candies next to me – when their job is to sit in a dark room watching movies for seven hours.
With half-hour breaks of sunlight meted out between three films, the endurance test of narrative drip can be a discomforting change. When I was in Cannes, I got the feeling of a bender when I emerged from my triple feature to find the sun down – largely because, with the chaos of so many screenings, my viewing had been self-orchestrated and mildly complex in the navigation of theaters and timeslots. Here, where each showing is administered to you, one feels less like a junkie than cattle, being sent out to pasture for a half hour with the herd. Programmers and critics alike prefer to pretend that the film festival criticism emerges out of a vacuum, but that just isn’t true. A remarkable film stands out less when it’s bookended by similarly remarkable films.
If this feels vacuous or reductive of viewership, consider this: art progresses when the avant-garde delivers a shock to the system.
Shocks don’t always (and in fact now, rarely) mean more blood, profanity, or sex, simply because we’re used to being shocked by them. It means something, anything we haven’t seen before.
This morning I watched two prominent features in NYFF’s official lineup – Chloe Zhao’s The Rider and Joachim Trier’s Thelma – both of which were operating at the top of their game in delivering new takes on familiar ideas. And while I really did like both, to differing degrees, it was only when The Other Side of Hope came on that I realized what everyone in the crowd was desperately needing to quit whispering or side-eying their phone: something bad! And bad in the best kind of way.
As art critic Peter Schjeldahl quotes in reference to this year’s Whitney Biennial: “I thought I missed good art, but that’s always rare. What I miss is bad art.” We can forget that we’re living in an era with certain aesthetic rules when watching films as different as The Rider and Thelma – until something truly different comes on.
I knew nothing of The Other Side of Hope before the screening, but the title sounded like a discreet reference to the post-Obama White House. I was expecting platitudes. Instead, the film begins with grainy, theatrically lit shots of a shipping yard, where a cargo ship is being filled up with coal. Out of the coal rolls Khaled (Sherwan Haji) blackened with soot and hardly battered. It is the beginning of his immigration to Finland.
It was only when The Other Side of Hope came on that I realized what we all needed for a change: something bad.
Describing the plot of the film won’t do much, because – against all odds – it has a respectably topical plot on paper. Better to describe it in a single word: pulpy. Not pulpy like Pulp Fiction, which is cannot belay its high production value, but in the way of midcentury B movies, perhaps even of vintage porn.
You have to understand; I didn’t believe I was watching a modern movie until about halfway through when a television displays a news brief of the Syrian conflict that can only be a few months old.
Set throughout Finland, every location feels comically two-dimensional and eerily similar, clearly, low-budget studio sets that you couldn’t pay American directors to shoot on these days. It matches the all-around stiff acting to a tee, and as a whole delivers a feeling devilishly similar to 60s sexploitation films, Don Siegel films like The Killers (1964), or my favorite Netflix TV show, Danger 5. My examples are sparse because of the low-budget mise-en-scene, while instantly recognizable, is hardly ever mentioned outside of campy viewership. Who the hell made this thing?
It turns out when Hollywood decided to throw out our movie sets and Vistavision, Finland recycled for us. The Other Side of Hope’s director, Aki Kaurismäki, has little name recognition in the states but is a sensation in his home country, where he and his brother’s production studio Villealfa, accounts for one-fifth of Finland’s industry output.
Making films fast and cheap, Kaurismäki has developed a style that speaks to Finland similar to the way Almodovar speaks for Spain. And Finland’s style involves a lot of cigarettes, 50s rock-n-roll interludes, and fishball stew. Notably, Kaurismäki has also twice boycotted the Oscars when his films were selected by Finland for competition, not wanting to associate with a nation at war. This political act can give us some insight on just how The Other Side of Hope got cooked up.
I didn’t believe I was watching a modern movie until about halfway through, when a television displays a news brief of the Syrian conflict that can only be a few months old.
Khaled is a Syrian who flees Aleppo after his home is bombed – “it could have been the military, rebels, Russia, America, Assad or ISIS” he tells the Finnish refugee panel. He comes to the country for asylum not out of choice but because he was attacked in Poland by Neo-Nazis, and needs a place to rest safely while he coordinates a search for his sister, Miriam. The two were lost crossing the border from Serbia.
Khaled’s story is interwoven with that of Wikström, a merchant turned restauranteur who eventually gives Khaled a job cleaning the place – which changes cuisine many times as it tries to become more profitable.
In its topical, tragic tale and the effort to expose European xenophobia, the film is reminiscent of Kornel Mundruczó’s Jupiter’s Moon, the main difference being that the latter takes itself too seriously, and the former not seriously enough – the better option if the standalone subject is truly sobering.
Between danger from police and white supremacists, Khaled speaks little and smokes lots, coolly attempting to contain the anxiety of his shattered life. Constantly checking on his sister’s whereabouts through his friend Mazdak, there’s little else he can do but get caught up in the cobwebbed restaurant and its antics.
Some scenes are truly meant as farce, such as when Khaled, hiding in the bathroom from the health inspector with the chef’s dog that similarly shouldn’t be there, he emerges after hours and says, “This is a smart dog. I taught him some Arabic while we were hiding and he converted to Islam.” Such a joke is so unprecedented in an event as self-serious as NYFF, it was enough to make everyone uproarious. I’ve exited the Walter Reade many times now avoiding the small talkers asking “So what did you think?” – the definition of a loaded question, from one critic to another – but only once have I exited amidst hubbub asking, “What the hell was that?”
There will be more films in the festival to come, and more deserving ones. But when something as spectacular as watching movies all day can begin to feel like obligatory, few things are more necessary than a good old-fashioned goof. Aki Kaurismäki does well in reminding that room full of critics, as few other films will do this festival, that we all have a really fun job.