It's not the end of the world

Moments of hope pierce the gloom for the characters in this Finnish comedy

<strong>Lights in the D

I'm not one for giving away the twists that a film has to offer, but it seems only fair to warn you about a scene near the end of Lights in the Dusk, the new comedy from the Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki. We've spent almost an hour in the company of Koistinen (Janne Hyytiäinen), a Helsinki security guard with slicked-back hair and the kind of doleful expression usually seen only in police mugshots. In that time, he has been beaten up, betrayed, drugged, sacked, humiliated, framed for a crime he didn't commit and incarcerated. That's when he does something both inappropriate and dramatically out of character: he bursts out laughing. See, I told you it was shocking.

Merriment in an Aki Kaurismäki film has the same effect as an explosion or an act of violence has in conventional cinema - it makes you sit up and gasp. There's never any shortage of mirth in the audience, where we appreciate Koistinen as a put-upon, weather-beaten sad-sack in the tradition of Buster Keaton, W C Fields or Bill Murray. On-screen, however, the characters receive with silent gratitude whatever arbitrary punishments fate dishes out to them, as though they expect as much and are simply relieved not to be disappointed.

What gives Kaurismäki's films their delightful tension is the tug-of-war between this apparent miserabilism and the surges of hope that disrupt the dour surface. Lights in the Dusk is like the emotional equivalent of an optical illusion: the glass that appears to be half empty is shown, by the end of the picture, to be overflowing with the milk, or rather the vodka, of human kindness.

Take Koistinen, who refuses to relinquish his bizarre idea that life will get better, even when faced with all the evidence to the contrary. He is despised by his workmates, who look like the sort of men who contribute to the Readers' Wives sections of pornographic magazines. He is oblivious to the attentions of Aila (Maria Heiskanen), who works on a fast-food stall and wears overalls the same shade of orange as her hot dogs.When Koistinen does manage to get a girlfriend - Mirja (Maria Järvenhelmi), who resembles a waxwork model of Jessica Lange - it's not his heart that she is after so much as the security code for the jewellery store that's on his beat.

Yet still there is a light behind Koistinen's sad blue eyes, even when he's holed up in a Helsinki hostel for former prisoners while the mobsters who had him put away conspire to wreck his prospects further.

Much of the optimism of Lights in the Dusk comes from the lush music, from Puccini to tango, and the vivid colours used to counterpoint the downturn in Koistinen's fortunes. In his cramped apartment, he hangs his socks on a makeshift washing line over the stove, but the walls around him are painted a sumptuous red. When he receives a "No" from the bank manager (what he actually says is "Go away") after applying for a loan, Kaurismäki cuts to a glorious golden sky stretching out over Helsinki, as though alerting us to some mysterious triumph in this rejection.

Each unappealing bar, café and diner is given an Edward Hopperesque glow. Even the prison is decorated like a boutique hotel, with the lower floor decked out in striking tangerine and the upper level a woozy lime green. The film's pleasures owe much to the production design by Markku Pätilä, clearly a name to remember if you're looking to spruce up a mausoleum or abattoir in the near future.

Lights in the Dusk is short by modern standards, clocking in at less than 80 minutes. And it is even more subdued in tone, and frugal in execution, than its predecessors in what Kaurismäki calls his "Loser" trilogy: Drifting Clouds (1996) and his finest film, The Man Without a Past (2002). What it does have, though, is a touching final shot to inspire faith in mankind - or at least in modern cinema - as well as more deadpan laughs than there are umlauts in the cast and crew list.

Pick of the week

Prick Up Your Ears (15)
dir: Stephen Frears
Witty 1987 biopic with Gary Oldman as the priapic playwright Joe Orton.

Days of Glory (12A)
dir: Rachid Bouchareb
North African soldiers fight for France in the Second World War. Not to be confused with . . .

Blades of Glory (12A)
dirs: Josh Gordon, Will Speck
. . . the similarly titled ice-skating comedy starring Will Ferrell.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, France: Vive la différence?

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis