The ironic constant of Aki Kaurismäki’s morality plays about glum, greasy-haired, sub-proletarian Finns is the theme of change and fresh starts that preoccupies their stoically quirky creator; even though The Other Side Of Hope (Grade: B-) is the first Kaurismäki movie to be made in Finland since 2006’s Lights In The Dusk, the writer-director remains committed to dinge, tunelessly drowsy twang-rock, and self-plagiarizing shaggy-dog plots. One thing has changed, though: If the earlier Kaurismäki films like Shadows In Paradise and The Man Without A Past were deadpan, blue-collar subversions of melodramatic plot points and classic film genres, then The Other Side Of Hope is a commentary on “Kaurismäki themes.”
It starts like one of those 1930s French movies about angry barge workers or existentially compromised longshoremen: faceless workers at the Helsinki docks; close-ups of bollard and ropes; dusk falling over the clamshell bucket cranes. A Syrian stowaway, Khaled (Sherwan Haji), emerges from coal hold of a Polish freighter, covered head to toe in coal dust, and escapes into the city. Cut to a cheerless apartment, where a hefty middle-aged shirt salesman, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen), packs his things in a little suitcase and silently returns his wedding ring to his wife, who is chain-smoking Chesterfields next to a grotesquely oversized potted cactus.
The unsubtle diagram of their narrative arcs intersects within minutes (literally, at an intersection), though they won’t meet again until much later, after Wikström has become the unlikely owner of a failing restaurant. This is nothing that Kaurismäki hasn’t done before, but the portions of the film that deal exclusively with Khaled—as he turns himself into the authorities, makes friends at a refugee barracks, and searches for his lost sister contain some of his purest filmmaking, including a close-up of the coaly water sludging down the drain of a pay shower that has to be one of the most lyrical shots in his body of work. (The scenes at Wikström’s restaurant, on the other hand, feature some of his hackiest humor.)
I chased The Other Side Of Hope with a film whose existential metaphors and appreciation for the drudgery and social habits of working stiffs couldn’t be more different from Kaurismäki’s droll, Capra-esque humanism: Good Luck (Grade: B), a striking documentary mood-piece by the American experimental director Ben Russell (Let Each One Go Where He May, A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness). A nomadic artist with an anthropologist’s intuition, Russel trains his camera on two sets of miners on opposite sides of the world.
The plutonic first section, shot in the bowels of a Serbian copper mine, is often so stunning that its few obvious moments (say, a Herzog-ian sequence of a miner playing Neil Young’s “Heart Of Gold” on accordion) end up being folded into the sublime. Shooting on grainy Super 16mm that animates the almost unanimous darkness, Russell and his longtime Steadicam operator, Chris Fawcett, follow the miners in long, unbroken takes. In their toil, they discover quintessentially human contradictions of timelessness and timely economic hardship—but also a kind of primordial cinema, which has its own long history of cave metaphors. The miner’s headlamps act as spotlights or cameras, cutting lit frames out of the darkness.
The overlong and occasionally repetitive second section, filmed at a ramshackle gold panning operation in the red mud of Suriname (also the setting of Let Each One Go Where He May), only matches the poetic purity and transportive qualities of the first in the brief moments when it enters the surrounding jungle. But part of a tremendous movie is better than nothing. For those wondering why experimental filmmakers still prefer film stock (besides the obvious technical advantages when filming inhospitable environments), look no further; it’s hard to think of a digital image that could evoke the extreme isolation of the mine as vividly as the camera simply running out of film while riding in a mine cage back up to the surface.