Damn, why is it that all the Nordic movies are the most determinedly stylish? If it ain’t Juho Kuosmanen buying up Europe’s entire stock of 16mm b/w film for The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki or Roy Andersson playing with the nature and texture of digital filmmaking in his Living Trilogy then you got Aki Kaurismäki who still lights his films like he’s playing outta the 1960s. Like Andersson he seems obsessed with the emptiness and tawdriness of modernity, both relentlessly stripping objects from the frame until their worlds’ become far too large for the small lives they contain.
But while Andersson chooses to depict those people whose internal lives are as bleak as their environment, Kaurismäki chooses to tell the stories of those with a lot going on. Like his previous film, La Havre, he’s working the grounds of immigration. The film sees him return to Finland, his home, because after the past few years they themselves are intertwining with the world’s dispossessed.
Khaled (Sherwan Haji) arrvies in the country having fled after the destruction of his family in Aleppo, a plot point which boy does fell pretty fucking grim right now, he volunteers himself to the police as a refugee and they set about assessing his eligibility. Meanwhile a travelling shirt salesman breaks up with his wife and decides to leave the trade in order to open a restaurant, clearly a prudent businessman in these present times. After a fashion the two of them help each other put together the pieces of their broken lives.
It’s a great film to come to given Western Europe’s preoccupation with the Balkan refugee route. You get that Nigel Farage racist campaign poster playing on our fear of the migrant horde or that Donald Trump Sweden comment. You got all those shitheads online who propagate these ridiculous and false claims of increased crime rates and Germany’s fall into degradation and who invent just the worst slurs that I cannot even bring myself to type. Here’s a film by an Elderly Finnish man which essentially says ‘Stop.’
Khaled speaks Arabic and English, his communication with the world is conducted in the nature of second languages. Sometimes in official capacities he’s offered a translator so he can precisely articulate to his interviewer the precise nature of his loss of faith when confronted with the obliteration of his life, otherwise the world just expects him to make do.
There’s this concept in the UK of the model immigrant that ‘enlightened’ folks like to throw out when they’re considering themselves very progressive about the subject. The person who will upon arrival shed their previous life and assimilate into whatever we’ve decided to define British culture. This mythical person who will provide all the merits of diversity without any of that confusing difference. The true nature of acceptance is not arrived at by the construction of yet another definition of the other, we achieve it by disabusing ourselves of the reductive notion that otherness is something to be rejected.
In the creation of Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) Kaurismäki has created another old white dude whose reaction to the other is one of acceptance. Like, this is a guy who generates the capital for his restaurant business by throwing on a cheap tux and going to some exclusive old white man club and fleecing them all at poker and even then he faces the world with a face as grim as the weather. He ain’t one of Andersson’s privilege ponies, he’s far too schlubby to ever get to that level and his first reaction to meeting this dude, even more down on his luck, who immediately challenges him to a fight, is to offer to help him out.
Maybe Kaurismäki just wants to exonerate his generation, but all the true shitheads he portrays are young and self-confident. Like all great socialist filmmakers operating in capitalist frameworks, he suggests the quiet nobility of the working classes. It is evident that, like the unionists who travelled to Spain during its civil war, there is now a global moral obligation to be faced by the workers of today. At least films can demonstrate to us how.
I’ll admit to finding his films hard. His comedy is too stiff for me to penetrate sometimes and this one, especially with its pressing focus on everything these characters have lost, is no exception. Its open heart is just too painful sometimes, but then there’s this short sequence where the team decide to rebrand themselves as a hip sushi restaurant that is the silliest goofiest shit and I’m in tears, but it’s just in that one point. It’s that awful point of having to admit I respect a film more than I actually like it.
Cos, you see, you need to make the decision to laugh at life, or at least in spite of it, for these films to land right. I’m just not at that level yet.