If this unexpected gem is anything to go by, it’s fair to say that Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki does not demand a lot from his actors. With the exception of Sherwan Haji as Khaled, the Syrian refugee, performances across the board in what is one of the strangest but most memorable films of the year are understated to the point of being almost posthumous. Which, at a time when cinema is dominated by bravura and limelighting, only strengthens and makes more recognisable the characters – when you have adjusted to the stylisation, that is. Nor does Kaurismäki appear to be over-concerned with art direction, given the minimalism of his sets and location shots. But in this, too, he makes a virtue of dagginess – the bare restaurant with the portrait of Jimi Hendrix on the wall is absurdist in a way that is part Franz Kafka, part Basil Fawlty. And, in a nutshell, it reflects the tone of the movie, for what Kaurismäki clearly does care about is story. Khaled has fled his homeland after the bombing of Aleppo. He arrives in Helsinki, applies unsuccessfully for refugee status, and is sentenced to be transported back to Syria. Across town, Wikström (Sakari Kuosmanen) has walked away from his alcoholic wife, won a huge stake in a poker game and, with the proceeds, set himself up as a restaurateur. The chain-smoking cook, frumpy waitress and maître d’ (Dome Karukoski, Kati Outinen and Tommi Korpela) are a scream without doing anything more than flatly recite their lines. The drama that unfolds comes about when Khaled escapes from the detention centre and is hired by Wikström, who provides him with ID papers. Commentary elsewhere on the plight of asylum seekers, though well meaning, tends to be holier than thou in its presentation – it’s not in this case. Kaurismäki’s movie is funky and unhurried, gritty but compassionate. As a bonus, the soundtrack’s twangy country music sung in Finnish (I loved it) is a reminder that there really are no borders.
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