Ahead of the release of Aki Kaurismäki’s poignant and funny latest The Other Side Of Hope, Neil Hepburn – Marketing Manager at The Cameo in Edinburgh – profiles the Finnish writer-director.
At this year’s Berlinale, the recipient of best director (for The Other Side Of Hope) responded to his award with an offbeat shrug and the bare bones of gratitude. This all seemed reassuringly suited to the sardonic cinematic world he has been creating since the 1980s. If it’s an acquired taste, it’s a taste worth acquiring. Nobody makes films like Aki Kaurismäki.
Dubbed ‘Akiland’, this is a place that exists at the margins of society, populated by characters slipping through the cracks of the system. The singular atmosphere of a Kaurismäki film is often built around chain-smoking outsiders who have hit the skids and headed to the nearest bar. They say little and smoke a lot. The humour is dry as ash. Music is central but always diegetic: a rockabilly busker on the corner, a Tango band at the local dancehall (and then there’s the Leningrad Cowboys, but let’s put that can of Brylcreem to one side for now).
This poetic vision of the underdog is littered with the director’s obsessions. Many of his characters journey in vintage cars to uncertain destinations. A Cadillac-driving Lapland miner drifts towards oblivion in Ariel (1988). A caffeine and booze-addled couple turn up the volume and hit the road in their Soviet-built Volga in Take Care Of Your Scarf, Tatjana (1994).
Elsewhere in Akiland, characters are trapped in a world that is not merely indifferent but sadistically antagonising. Such is the case in The Match Factory Girl (1990), a caustic gem that torments its protagonist to such a degree that her eventual, extreme response seems almost reasonable. Todd Solondz fans, this one’s for you!
These are films where simplicity of ideas and desperately dark humour prop up social criticism. In the moving Drifting Clouds (1996), an unemployed couple struggle against economic hardships, frequently encountering almost absurd obstacles in their search for work. At times almost farcically bleak, Kaurismäki’s mastery of craft is in the way he offsets such potentially depressing subject matter with unexpected deadpan humour.
The flipside to this cynicism is a humanity that permeates his work. Nabbing the title of an Erich Maria Remarque novel for his breakthrough Shadows In Paradise (1986), Kaurismäki cast regulars Kati Outinen and Matti Pellonpää as a cashier and a truck driver in a love story that pre-empted the ‘dark romcom’ by some distance. Yet throughout the cynicism that cuts through the clichés of the genre, there’s a deep level of empathy on display.
The Other Side Of Hope continues to claw the humanity out of an absurdly unforgiving world. In Kaurismäki’s last film, Le Havre (2011), the director brought a new level of international urgency into his work, dealing with Europe’s burgeoning refugee crisis. The Other Side Of Hope stays with these thematic concerns, as Khaled, a traumatised Syrian refugee, arrives in Helsinki. But furthermore, Khaled is arriving in Akiland. And in this deadpan universe of harsh realities juxtaposed with rock’n’roll absurdity, Khaled’s plight becomes all the more affecting.
The Other Side Of Hope is in cinemas from Friday 26 May. Find your cinema and book tickets.