Aki Kaurismäki has done it again, folks. Back after a six year hiatus, his latest feature possesses all his trademarks: the slightly faded aesthetic; the po-faced performances; the scalding Finnish wit hibernating in drab décor and reams of cigarette smoke. Only, the comedy this time around is slightly less pronounced than normal, taking a backseat at times in lieu of a beautiful and simple migrant story. Khaled Ali has fled Syria after a bomb killed most of his family; on the escape route, he was separated from his surviving sister, Miriam, and eventually he found himself on a freighter destined for Helsinki. Along the way, he is told that Finland is a good and accepting country that will make room for him. So he goes and applies for asylum, and things more or less go his way… until they don’t. The country rejects him with a cold slap in the face, and orders for his repatriation. Knowing it is likely a death sentence, he flees before the police escort comes for him.
Meanwhile, Kaurismäki interweaves a dual narrative into the film: that of clothing salesman Waldemar Wikström, who decides one day that enough is enough. He leaves his wife, sells his business, and lucks out big time on a high stakes poker game in order to buy and run an unremarkable restaurant called the Golden Pint. By this point, it’s inevitable that Khaled and Waldemar will meet, and at first it’s odd to see Kaurismäki give equal weighting to their stories, when Khaled’s is clearly the more important one. Somehow, I didn’t really care. I saw it more as a commentary on how people are able to make do with some luck and determination in their favour, and that both Khaled and Waldemar can be counted as equals in that sense. They are both eager to better themselves and contribute meaningfully to society—Khaled by working and earning his keep; Waldemar by making his restaurant an appealing prospect to customers. This bond forged by shared ambitions is vitally important, because through it the film refuses to demonize or stigmatize Khaled or his liminal position. It showcases his inner goodness, and furthermore, it emphasizes how wrong it was for Finnish officials to deny him residency without just cause.
Interestingly, Kaurismäki chooses to end the film on a downbeat note, leaving things up in the air for the Syrian protagonist as he gazes on the harbourfront. We do not know what will become of him or his sister—whether he will die a Finnish refugee, or find another place to call home. So it is for many refugees who we may pass by in our daily lives. Every day is a question mark for the displaced and dispossessed. New struggles arise. Old ones regress. There is basic civility or unbounded kindness. Every day, they dream of what they lost and what is to come. The one thing this ending does have, however, is hope. Wherever Khaled will end up, his journey will not have been for naught. He will have made his mark. And for Kaurismäki, that may be all the closure we need to open up our hearts.