Home  Contact Phil


Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


  The Other Side of Hope


Directed by Aki Kaurismaki (2017)

It’s not the most promising subject-matter for a laugh-out-loud comedy. Even a black one. In Finnish.

Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has lost almost his whole family after his home in Aleppo was bombed and become one of many thousands of Syrian refugees heading west to escape the horror. Along the way he loses his sister, his last surviving relative, and flees racists by jumping on board a ship at Gdansk that, by chance, lands him in Helsinki, where he seeks asylum.

Meanwhile, and there is more obvious comic potential here, travelling shirt salesman Wikstrom (Sakari Kuosmanen) leaves his alcoholic wife, sells his remaining stock and wins a rather far-fetched hand of stud poker to fund the purchase of a ‘restaurant’, the name of which translates as The Golden Pint. It’s what those in the pub trade call ‘wet-led’.

Included in the purchase are the three employees, drawn from Finland’s cupboard of assorted comic character actors, who will soon be joined by a fourth – none other than Khlaled, who is on the run after the immigration people come to the bizarre conclusion that Aleppo is perfectly safe and he should be deported back there.

Wikstrom finds him making his bed behind the bins, and following a perfunctory altercation and a punch on the nose, takes a shine to him and gives him a job and somewhere to sleep.

Indeed, apart from the fascists and the authorities, pretty nearly everyone is a nice person more than willing to lend a hand to a fellow human being fallen on hard times.

This is, when you take a moment to think about it, an entirely realistic depiction of most of society, and Kaurismaki does not try to complicate it.

While Khaled himself appears grieving and grimly determined, the actors around him give us little in the way of emotion, simply reading their lines and keeping a distance between themselves and their roles, Brecht-style.

This creates space for a dead-pan humour that works even through the medium of subtitles, and there are some delightful set-pieces.

Realising he needs to develop the food side of the business (“Why?” asks the chef), Wikstrom ambitiously introduces a sushi menu, kitting out the staff in traditional costume and miraculously attracting a coachload of Japanese on the first night.

It doesn’t go well, though, and we’re soon back to meatballs and boiled potatoes.

While obviously more fun than Aleppo (except to the immigration board), Helsinki doesn’t exactly come across as a great holiday destination. It’s drab, damp and austere, half-stuck in the 1950s, a bit like the future envisaged by Terry Gilliam’s Brazil where computers coexist with typewriters.

The hospitality is unsmiling, yet unconditional. Strangers are welcomed without hesitation, and in one scene where Khaled is attacked by the local fash a motley and aging band of folk, one of them on crutches, appear from nowhereto see them off.

Lightly, and with a minimum of fuss, Kaurismaki shows us a world that’s the other side of mere hope, a world where, despite the horrors and despite those in power, ‘ordinary’ people just get on with doing what they have to do to help each other get through.

June 6, 2017

Back to Reviews



Writing... Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub Crawls
Contact Phil