Aki Kaurismäki masterfully tells a gentle fable that holds a profound and contemporary moral message.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji) emerges from a pile of coal. He is a stowaway on a freighter as it arrives in Helsinki. Finding his way to a police station, he seeks asylum, having weathered an exhausting journey through Europe after fleeing his home in Aleppo, Syria. Waldemar Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) wordlessly leaves his wife and sells his business to become a restaurateur. The employees at the restaurant he buys are an odd bunch and he discovers it’s not as easy as he thought to run a profitable business.
The paths of the two men accidentally cross in the opening scene but they barely register each other, each intent on forging a new future. For Khaled, all he needs is a life of safety and to find his sister who he was parted from as they escaped. The others in the ‘reception centre’ where he must wait to find out if he can stay are like him; a displaced people whose skills and abilities mean nothing in a new country. Waldemar is seeking the opposite, a life that is more exciting and adventurous than the staid, safe and comfortable existence he has created.
Kaurismäki’s style is particular. Like cinematic theatre, there is a sense of every scene and frame being visually crafted as if on a stage. The acting is deadpan with Khaled’s impassive, wide-eyed stare never faltering. Characters move through their day with no reaction to the oddness around them. The world he creates is recognisably real but with an otherworldly feel that is neither nostalgic nor derivative. The visual and emotional power of some simple, wordless scenes, such as Waldemar leaving his ring on the table, tell you more than lines of dialogue ever would.
The Helsinki of Kaurismäki’s story is a sparse and marginal space. We see the industrial areas, the empty streets and the people who live on the outer – the homeless, the nomadic, asylum seekers, thugs and those who are dispossessed. Waldemar seems to be old Finland; tired of a life of drudgery and looking to find himself. Khaled is all that is hopeful about new migrants; willing to accept everything that comes his way and to give up everything – his name, religion, even his identity – to have a new life.
I’m not sure that the message is ultimately hopeful. The title seems to imply that hope is not a goal but a state to surpass, or perhaps a motivation for change. The final scene is a bittersweet one that seems to perfectly encompass that ambiguity.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.