Khaled (Sherwan Haji) has fled Syria where a war is taking place and ruining the country, and has wound up on a cargo ship as a stowaway, hidden below decks. Once night falls, he emerges and covered in the coke he makes it off the ship to find himself in Helsinki, Finland, where he knows he must seek asylum as his next step. Although he has made it across Europe, he has not sought that anywhere else, since he had a very important personal mission, but he sees no other way out of his current predicament. Meanwhile, a salesman and would-be restaurateur, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) has just left his wife after many years of marriage; after getting into his car, he almost runs Khaled over, but they will meet again...
Writer and director Aki Kaurismäki had not made a feature length film in six years when The Other Side of Hope, or Toivon tuolla puolen as it was originally titled, appeared but had claimed he was turning political with his work, something seen in his previous film Le Havre where immigrants were the subject. They were the subject here, too, specifically the refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who had sparked such a controversy and eventual crisis in Europe, a location regarded as a place of sanctuary and hope by those escaping their lives further south. When they arrived in their droves, they found a very different story, and were made to feel alternately welcome by governments keen to be seen to be acting humanely, and unwelcome by many locals.
This left all sorts of horror stories, a number of them invented, about refugees, Muslim ones mostly, committing all sorts of crimes and choking various routes around the Continent as they caused havoc. What was not invented was that both there was a genuine crisis, and that unscrupulous people were exploiting them to get their money for dreams that had no hope of being fulfilled, and it was that which Khaled fell victim to and the reason he had shown up in the Finnish capital. The director obviously had a great deal of sympathy for an authentically disadvantaged and displaced young man, though that did tend to render Khaled more of an emblem than a living, breathing personality who we could believe was a real individual rather than a message delivery device.
Nevertheless, around him were Kaurismäki's trademark characters for whom the word "deadpan" appeared to have been invented, and that included Wikström who offers a helping hand once the business with Khaled's asylum was sorted out (or not). He is trying to track down his missing sister, the rest of his family having perished in a missile attack on his home, and all he knows is that she is somewhere in Eastern Europe as they lost sight of one another in Hungary. The restaurant owner cannot help with that, but he can give the refugee a place to sleep and a job sweeping the floor, though how much of that is generosity and how much is purely self-serving is a matter the film neglects to address head-on. What is clear enough is that eventually Wikström is acting out of the goodness of his heart.
As with many of this filmmaker's efforts, a sense of humour was never too far from the surface, even if that surface could obscure it. That said, as he was tackling a more serious subject the jokes only became apparent in the second half, as the restaurant business proves trickier than anyone thought, from the staff to the manager - the situation comedy about the disastrous sushi bar they try to turn the establishment into was truly mirthful to watch. But before you thought Kaurismäki was painting an uncharacteristically sunny portrait of life for asylum seekers in Finland, he did include racists who make life difficult for Khaled to the extent of beating him up, and though he is saved there was a somewhat ambiguous conclusion arising from that menace that had you unsure of whether his mission had worked out for the best, for himself at least. No fairy tale, then, yet how believable it was depended very much on your own experience of such headline news, be that personal or simply what you had read under those headlines.