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



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.


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.


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.




Poesia sin fin (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2017)


Some background:

[I first discovered Alejandro Jodorowsky while getting a bit deep into the dark parts of the film-web which discussed weird and disturbing movies, ranging from benign-strange like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil to just completely batshit what-the-fuck-did-I-watch strange like E Elias Merhige’s Begotten. Jodorowsky falls somewhere smack in the middle of that, and completely by surprise to me, it was an artistic sweet-spot.

I came to admire his passionate wonder and other-worldly vision when I watched his greatest masterpiece The Holy Mountain. I was further sold after watching the good-but-overrated El Topo and the lyrical and most emotionally mature of his films, Santa Sangre. Even his lesser work, a mainstream Hollywood film starring Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif, The Rainbow Thief, is a film I conclude is only not-great because Hollywood producers handcuffed Jodorowsky from expressing his true vision. None of these films are easy to digest at first glance. Jodorowsky is a filmmaker who’s films do absolutely everything in excess. Their philosophy is haywire, their violence is vulgar, their sexuality is uncomfortable, and their love is heart wrenching.

But there is a purpose behind everything. Much of what made Jodorowsky such a cult icon is that he created a cinematic universe all his own, guided by his own divisive ideas of life and art and shared it, bare naked, unfiltered, and uncensored for all to see.]


The Dance of Reality (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 2013)


Now, with his latest two films, he bares for us all, his childhood, and his path to becoming the filmmaker he is today.

This “new” Alejandro Jodorowsky, the one risen from the ashes after his 23-year hiatus following the commercial and critical disaster that was The Rainbow Thief, is someone I still have to get readjusted to. From an ideological standpoint, not much has changed. Jodorowsky is who he is. But from an artistic standpoint, there is something plastic-like about both The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin (Endless Poetry), the first two films of his 5-film cycle recounting his childhood and adolescence. Jodorowsky’s aesthetic doesn’t really hold up in the 1080p high definition world. What was endearing about his early-to-mid films was that their ambiguous sense and time and place was augmented by the graininess of the celluloid. That authenticity is gone in this movie, which plays more like a glossy stage-show. Throughout these two films, there are embedded vignettes where the characters will expand on a theories or ideas, and asides where a present-day-Jodorowsky will break the fourth wall and prophesize to us and his past self simultaneously.


Much of this sort of symbolism is a little too straightfoward. Jodorowsky’s imagination is not as bold as it once was, even though the violence and sex throughout the films are just as provocative and weird. Especially with The Dance of Reality, it was clear to me that there wasn’t much of an interesting story going on here. Sure, Chile’s tumultuous political backdrop amidst Pinoche’s rise is noteworthy as is Jodorowsky’s father’s abusive attitude and a not-quite-obvious-but-still-uncomfortable Oedipus Complex between the young Alejandro and his very large-bosomed mother, who sings all of her lines as parts of an aria. Though, in regards of his self-discovery, hardly anything illumniating comes about. The young Alejandro has vague conversations with a pan-religious monk, tatooed with all sorts of symbols, reminiscent of The Alchemist in The Holy Mountain. These conversations don’t seem to move the needle much with whatever Jodorowsky is trying to say and many of them are repetitive.


In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view. Much of the film still struggles to bind interesting scenes together, and a good portion of the film is decked with filler material, this time explicitly sexual rather than philosophical, but there are clear ideas being sprouted unlike in Dance of Reality.


Poesía sin fin comes into it’s own when it starts examining the two things which truly drive Jodorowsky’s art… poetry and the neglect and abuse of his father.

The best scene of a rather messy film is when Jodorowsky and his real-life poet-buddy Enrico Lihn discuss the idea of “poetry in action”, spontaneously compelling them to travel through the town in a literal straight line, with no deviation; if there is a car in the way they climb and walk over the car, if there is a house in the way, they knock on the door and ask permission to walk through the house, even climbing over the bed in the master bedroom. There is no actual need for this rigidity and it is rather inconvenient for the duo and moreso for everyone around them, but it encapsulates the eccentricity of Jodorowsky within a single sequence. It highlights his own view of art as an expression of unwavering, dedicated movement rather than mere theory and discourse. This idea is present in all of his previous films, as most of his characters go on rigorous and tortuous journeys of self-understanding and artistic enlightenment.


Likewise, the most emotionally charged sequences in the film occur near the beginning where the still young Alejandro is forced by his father to savagely beat a poor couple and strip them naked in front of a crowd as a sign of power, and near the end, when he finally confronts his father’s savagery with some of his own, taking joy in the fact that his parents’ house has burned down rendering them homeless and poor. It is a bit uncompromising, perhaps an immoral mark of Jodorowsky’s character, but it’s the first time in this 5-film cycle we’re seeing Jodorowsky express deep feeling and understanding of who he is in relation to his disturbed past.

It’s quite clear Jodorowsky’s obsession with himself and his continued deeper discovery of cinema is still just as rich as it was at the beginning of his career, and if not necessarily works of great storytelling, The Dance of Reality and Poesía sin fin are still pure Jodorowsky and for his fans that should be more than enough.



Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice


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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.


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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.