The Other Side of the Superhero

THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE (12A) 2016 Finland 98mins. Toivon tuolla puolen (original title), written and directed by Aki Kaurismäki, with Sherwan Haji, Tommi Korpela and Sakari Kuosmanen.

Super hero movies, fantasies of infinite, individual power, an Ayn Randian, Trumpian, Peter Thielian fantasy of puissance, a two hour cinematic antidote for overwhelming pusillanimity, one person alone and all that, loneliness as entertainment, the sad side of Hollywood, an excuse to indulge in consumer excess, toys and butlers, glossy luxury, the visual counterpart to overwhelming personal talent; if you’re going to be isolated by your gifts then make that isolation splendid.

The Other Side of Hope is, in a way, the other side of the superhero. If Superman was an immigrant, an alien, a cuckoo, then Khaled, Syrian, could be a vision of immigrant impelled to perform as if Superman, first seen emerging alien-like, blackened and inhuman from a ship’s cargo of coal, a fragment of energy, dangerous, relentless, a pathogen needing immediate treatment, a strange growth to be ejected, cut out, destroyed.

And the Finnish bureaucracy does its best. Khaled is very shortly to be ejected, put on a flight back to Syria, his hometown apparently not a war-zone, but a safe haven. Khaled takes a flight of a different sort, springing over the fence around the immigration centre like a bird, disappearing into the wilds of Helsinki, to wash up behind a mountain of garbage belonging to an eccentric restaurant, recently acquired by a quondam travelling shirt salesman come poker superstar (or superhero perhaps), his preternatural skill ensuring both jackpot and safe passage from the poker room, an underworld where fair play is (it’s assumed) as unusual as winning.

The Other Side of Hope is an unexpectedly joyful, humorous, clever film, not simply the inverse of hope, but the reverse of despair, the opposite of realism, a film which takes any number of cinematic tropes and builds something entirely original, utterly optimistic and fundamentally engaging.

The apparatus of the state, behind glass, uniformed, distinct, separate, is undermined by inclusive, connected, determined ordinary Finnish citizens, who embrace all manner of intrusions, whether personal in the shape of Khaled or cultural, in the shape of Japanese sushi, sadly created with pickled herring when the tuna (severely under-ordered) runs out. This inclusive connectivity, this unwavering optimism finally achieves all kinds of positive outcomes, a wife who abandons alcohol and loneliness, the sister who is rescued, the truck driver who makes a generous gesture.

There is an expectation that if a film concentrates on the jejune side of life, the determinedly anti-aesthetic, the financially challenged, then visually it will reflect the inner life of the characters, that the inhabitants will be either highly energetically rebellious or requiring of our sympathy, our pity even; that we will be taken on a journey inward, inside, into an interior emotional landscape.

And if the defining characteristic of a Hollywood superhero is isolation, the defining characteristic of this film is the way everyone works together to achieve things large and small, whether hiding the restaurant dog from inspectors or producing fake identity cards, the appropriation of familiar styles for unfamiliar ends, of making a super-power into a super-engaged super-involved depiction of a society which accepts the outsider and thus evolves into something new, something more than hope, something real, something which exists.

The fantasy of the super-hero is built on a dream of entire self-sufficiency. The expectation is that your success (or failure) in life is on your own head, if you haven’t made it, it’s your own fault. But at some point, everyone has had to be rescued from behind the garbage, to be recognised as a person, to be welcomed into some kind of dysfunctional but hopeful society, who might attempt a Japanese makeover, who might neglect to order the right kind of fish is sufficient quantity, who might be targeted by neo-Fascists, but who somehow prevails, no matter what the ultimate outcome.

Paul Corcoran