Small Stature, Powerful Punches – Aki Kaurismäki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

 

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The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

There is a term in boxing called “pound-for-pound” whereby a boxers rank is determined by his physical achievement in relation to his size. The best pound-for-pound fighters do the most with the least and while their stature may be small, the power and heart they exhibit during a fight outweigh it. If there is a stylistic equivalent to a pound-for-pound fighter in movies, I can’t think of a more fitting title-holder than Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Since the beginning of his career, his cinema has been defined through a simplicity in style, dialogue, and emotion that is delightful and rich for some, but distant and opaque for others. It features lighting that can best be described as sparse and dialogue that is curt and aloof, most of it to comic effect, but also revealing deep insights into the character’s lives and emotions. I spoke much about Kaurismäki before here, and why I felt his movies not only do the most with the least, but why his idiosyncratic style is difficult to absorb at face value and not as easily digestible as his Western European counterparts, but yet, behind the coy and jokey design his films are draped with, he is a filmmaker with immensely bold and important ideas.

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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

Much like another 2017 film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which uses a parent’s divorce and missing child as an allegory for life under Putin, Kaurismäki utilizes a refugee story and a businessman’s redemption to channel politics, economics, and culture within Finland.

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Khaled is a Syrian immigrant, whose first appearance in the film is at the opening series of shot, with him slowly peeking his head out from under a pile of coal and casually walking away, caked in soot. His journey to Finland was anything but clean, and in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, he recounts the entire journey to a Finnish immigration officer. “I didn’t choose to come here” Khaled simply says at the end. He is looking for his sister who is the only family member left alive after a bomb massacred the rest of them in Aleppo. “ISIS, Kurds, Syrian government, USA, Russia, Hezbollah… it could have been anybody.” Many monster movies in Hollywood fashion the tagline “Whoever wins, we lose.” Khaled, and many other Syrians live that reality every day, and it’s not cool or exciting to watch. This is probably the most a Kaurismäki character has ever talked in one setting, but it indicates the importance Kaurismäki hold for the words of refugees, and for the director to break his style of undescriptive dialogue for this character, speaks volumes about his moral compass as a filmmaker.

While Khaled tries to find his footing with no money nor identification, the other central character in the film, a cold business investor named Wikstrom, who is recently divorced, buys up a restaurant and its staff with a large sum of money he won in high-stakes poker. He is incredibly savvy in the business world, and cutthroat as well. We realize from the beginning, after they arbitrarily come across each other on a deserted road in the first 10 minutes and promptly part ways without a word, that both Khaled and Wikstrom are destined to meet up once again. The dichotomy of these two characters is that between an established, wealthy national citizen and someone who has just arrived and is scraping by. They also represent the old and new visions of the director with Wikstrom’s restaurant venture providing the light-hearted brevity we have come from know and love of Kaurismäki’s cinema, while Khaled is the cipher for a new path of political commentary he is embarking upon.

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Wikstrom knows the lay of the land when it comes strictly to business, but he is not savvy to the political climate of the nation. When his workers ask for a high salary, he retorts they will get “union wages… whatever they are.” He is also easily duped by them in a hilarious sequence where the front-end host sweet-talks Wikstrom into a couple of extra Euros. He then steps out and signals to the other two employees a look which says “yeah, he’s a sucker” and the waitress promptly goes in to pinch a few easy bucks from him as well. Wikstrom’s uptight business attitude belies his vulnerabilities to dealing with people, and contributes to his complexity as a character and sets up for his encounter with Khaled.

That Wikstrom would find Khaled sleeping near the dumpsters outside his restaurant, get into a fist fight with him, and promptly offer him a job may be a naïve idealist dream, but it does make one thing clear, Kaurismäki refuses to brand people in his films as good or bad. In fact, the only characters in the film who end up being one-sidedly evil (because that’s the only factual and realistic way to portray them) are the Neo-Nazis who tussle with Khaled several times throughout the movie. In a comedic film, the presence of these figures feels like a jolt to the system. Kaurismäki’s inspiration here seems to come from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In that film, the Jewish barber is inherently a comedic character, but in one sequence, he is being lynched at a streetlight by Nazi sympathizers. It’s a terrifying scene because it is sandwiched between comedic hijinks. Even the event itself is poised as a “funny bit” with the Nazi’s not being able to tie the rope properly and Chaplin falling down and bonking one of them on the head. Kaurismäki recreates a similar mix of terror and comedy when the Nazis follow Khaled outside near an alley and attempt to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire when a homeless man smashes a beer bottle on one of their heads and sends him for a loop.

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Racism themes are treated in Hollywood with tear-jerking patronization and an ironic silencing of actual minority voices by posing it as a “both sides issue”. They are also hilariously considered brave and moving and are automatic awards hogs, like Martin McDonaugh’s disgustingly bad Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kaurismäkis is a welcome antidote to the trivialization of these important topics, and his ability to create moments of such great power and emotion, and an unmistakable clarity in right vs wrong, from unassuming and often detached characters and situations inherent in his style is what makes The Other Side of Hope a remarkable achievement and the must-see film of 2017.

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Inside Three Films From the Latin American Film Fest

The AFI Silver theater was doing the Latin American Film Festival, and I decided with time restraints and busy schedule and all, to pick three movies playing at convenient times and watch them. I’m glad I did because they represented a good distribution of what you’d expect to be playing at most festivals around the world…  most of the selection was picked off from bigger premier fests from earlier in the year including Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, etc. All in all, it was a good experience and the audiences at these films are much more “there for the movie” than your regular theater audiences so the screening experience is almost always enjoyable.

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Vazante (Daniela Thomas, 2017)

I guess I should jump straight into extolling about what I thought was the clear standout of the three, Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian romance-thriller Vazante. Premiering at Director’s Fortnight earlier this year, and getting rave reviews there, the movie certainly lived up to its pedigree. It was without question the most accomplished of the films I watched, and also the most singular in its vision. Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film. The tranquility of its setting, where Beatriz walks elegantly through grass fields to the sound of tropical birds, belies the reality of each characters existence. The brutality of slavery is kept as a looming, threatening undercurrent in the film, and the violence kept to a bare minimum. Similar to a sequence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave where a young child plays with her dolls in the cotton field while we know, somewhere unseen and unheard, slaves a being savagely whipped, so too in Vazante is the majority of bloodshed implicit.

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When Beatriz falls in love with a slave boy named Virgilio, we know that sooner or later their luck of running away together unnoticed is going to run out. We know the terrible consequences of their actions. Yet, the glimmer of hope for them taunts us in many ways; in the traits of each character, such as Antonio’s seemingly lazy behavior (he sleeps in a hammock all day) at the plantation and his frequent long trips out into the jungle, as well as the technical choices of Thomas and her editor and cinematographer, who keenly keep the presence of Antonio felt throughout exchanges between Beatriz and Virgilio.

While both of the young lovers face similar peril in their relationship to Antonio, with Virgilio being a bought-for slave and Beatriz as bought-for bride, Thomas makes a clear distinction that Beatriz’s whiteness remains an inherent privilege. The class and racial consciousness Thomas infuses through simple gestures is markedly different from most American treatments of slavery, which usually features white characters “with a heart”.  Here, Beatriz is not shy about her disobedience to Antonio because even as a young girl, she is very much aware of her status while Virgilio’s life becomes more and more in danger as their relationship becomes more passionate.

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The Night Guard (Diego Ros, 2017)

A quieter entry in the fest was  The Night Guard, the debut film of Mexican filmmaker Diego Ros. Obviously working with budget restraints and helmed by a director clearly still getting his feet wet in the art of making cinema, it is set in a single location; a construction site near a hillside overlooking a large city. A security guard named Salvador is about to become a father, but instead of being with his wife as she’s going through labor, he is stuck tending to a police investigation of a dead child in a van which appeared near his construction site. As the night progresses, police corruption, shady activity from his co-worker Jose, an encounter with a hooker, and other obstacles keep Salvador in a reverse-Waiting-For-Godot situation where, as he is about to finally leave, he keeps getting pulled back. The movie aims to at once present a clever ruse necessitated by its budget constraints while also giving us a look at crime and security issues rife within Mexico. It has its share of flaws that usually befall a first-timer, with some strange editing, questionable acting, and a script which seems to be a little too thin and light for its full feature length, but it also flashes moments of Ros’s technical knowledge. He develops his aesthetic well, playing with light and shade and utilizing long shots to showcase both the isolation of his characters and the ambiguity of their surroundings. But with an ending that just leaves many of its ideas laying on the ground, the movie remains an unfinished product with potential.

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The Desert Bride (Cecelia Atan & Valeria Pivato, 2017)

Finally, from Argentina, is Cecelia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s The Desert Bride, which was an Un Certain Regard Selection at the Cannes Film Fest. Featuring a terrific central performance from Paulina Garcia, the movie is a charming buddy-road-film about a maid who loses her bag at a bazaar and goes in search of it with the help of the last person she remembers having it with, a merchant named Gringo. It’s a breezy entry that is incredibly easy to digest because its narrative follows an arc I am well accustomed to growing up on Hollywood cinema, and its central focus on the chemistry between its “mismatched pair” is basically custom-built to please audiences. While the movie is certainly enjoyable, it is a dime a dozen of the road-trip genre. Not much more to say here. You know what to expect.

Manifesto

 

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Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2017)

 

Advancement of technology in film is a constant, and thus, the horizons of its boundaries as an art are also ever expanding. For the first time in my life, I really had to contend with whether a single screen theater was limiting for a motion picture. Julian Rosefeltd’s film, or more appropriately, cinematic art piece, Manifesto is a movie which was exhibited in two different forms, both vastly changing the structure and therefore the perception of the piece as “cinema”. It was first released in the Australian Center for the Moving Image in a gallery setting which showcases Cate Blanchette, playing 13 different roles, on different screens throughout the room and reciting 13 different manifestos on the idea of “art” itself. As you walk deeper, the voices of her different characters start to create a conversation or argument, or as Jane Howard put it in The Daily Review, “an unspoken stand-off”. This is an experience, a three-dimensional space which takes the 2-D cinematic image and echoes it to and from us in multiple directions. It’s a cinematic piece you literally walk through, experience as you are in motion in real time, in the real world.

Suffice to say, this is not how I personally experienced this film, and it brought about limitations and complications which again, made it clear that a single-screen theater was inadequate in showcasing the new horizons of what artists can do with the film medium. Manifesto, the 90-minute popcorn motion picture, is not much more than a long-string cut-and-paste rant. Out of the 13 different sermons you sit through, the only one which made any sense in the traditional theater setting was the news broadcast because, well, by its definition it is to be watched motionless in a single sitting. Rosefeltd’s writing is clearly passionate and clearly demonstrates a deep understanding of art history and it’s underlying philosophies, all of which are masterfully recited by Blanchette who, in many cases hams it up (perhaps the nature of the piece is to be satirical of art), but also manages to embody the writing in her movements and her biggest asset as an actress, her eyes.

 

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Australian Center for the Moving Image opening showcase of Manifesto.

 

It was clear, however, that I was watching something that begged to be limitless, not constrained in a traditional movie theater and demanded its viewers to not be sitting on their asses munching on popcorn for 90 minutes. It perplexes me why Rosefeldt would want his film to be shown in this setting after two highly-touted exhibits in Australia and Berlin which captured the essence of the project’s ambition: to create a cinema which architecturally invades us through all its forms, visual, audial, and as interaction with the viewer. If the gallery exhibit was like riding a rollercoaster in an amusement park, the theater screening which I sat through was more like someone reading me the entire pamphlet or brochure for Six Flags. Maybe this was the point. By showing the project in both areas, Rosefeldt can illuminate the limitations of the theater complex itself. If film is to enter a new horizon as and artistic medium, then Rosefeldt is claiming its current home of the movie theater is not sufficient.

Killa (The Fort)

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Killa – The Fort (Avinash Arun, 2015)

The trend of Marathi cinema’s foray into a deeper introspection on coming-of-age stories (others being Vihir, Fandry, Regeand Shala)** can be thought of as a watershed moment in Maharashtra itself where the community’s evolution has now gone from simply considering kids as a naïve collective who’s heads should be in books and exam papers to complex individuals who’s discovery and learning comes through exposure with the lessons of life. Killa’s main situation, of a boy and his mother who end up changing jobs and locations often is a great fertile ground to explore the main child Chimya’s restlessness and abandonment in the new community he is forced to take head on. He finds solace in a group of ragtag friends, but his timid nature and inability to socialize on a deep level leaves him to his own devices, feeling betrayed at any sign of neglect or exclusion both from his friends and his mother.

The crux of the movie, and what leads to the title of the film, is when Chimya goes on a biking race with his friends to an old fort from the British Raj, and he loses them. As rain pours down he finds a hiding place in one of the fort’s tunnels. Once he gets back to the entrance he sees only his bicycle remains. It’s a seminal moment in the film because it brings Chimya back to square one in terms of trusting anybody in the new community. For the entire time, he had argued with his mother that he wanted to go back to Pune, but once he made friends, he was slowly starting to come around. His quick decision to crawl back into his shell has negative effects on the innocent people in his life as well. His mother is discovering a wave of corruption on her legal office and her and Chimya’s connection starts to tatter. Chimya also scoffs at the food prepared by one of his mother’s friends, a moment where we realize his anger and detest has spread from his just friends circle out to the community in general.

Avinash Arun films Killa beautifully encapsulating the serene greens and blues of the coastal villages of India, and the only major grievance I had with the film is that the actor who plays Chimya definitely shows his discomfort and amateur chops (or lack of chops) on screen. He never looks the way a child is supposed to look when depressed or abandoned, rather it’s a stiff performance and can be irritating to watch at times. But this is mostly forgivable because Arun does evoke the alienated feelings of youth in new environments and the anxiousness to discover with a refreshing simplicity and a nice lack of pretense.

**Click the name of the movie to get transferred to a review of the movie