Master Cheng

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Master Cheng
"Do not see it with an empty stomach and a full wallet or they will soon be the other way round."

When Master Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) arrives at the small café in a remote Finnish village, he is looking for something – or somebody – but nobody knows what. Unable to speak the language, he manages a few words of conversation with the locals using English, but all in vain. Taking pity on him, the owner, Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) finds a place where he and his young son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan) can stay, and s begins what will be a transformative experience for all involved.

Who is the mysterious stranger? Given that he can’t easily explain himself, rumours about in the village. Is he on the run from somewhere? Is the boy really his son? His smallest actions are analysed in detail by people who have nothing better to do. But this is not an unfriendly place. The first time he volunteers his services as a cook, whipping up some noodles for a group of tourists who are unimpressed by the largely sausage-based local fare, one of the locals mutters disparagingly “No heterosexual white man would eat this!” Just one taste, though, and everything changes.

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Mika Kaurismäki’s lyrical comedy is shot through with the kind of pain that makes the rest feel all the sweeter. Nunjo has nightmares, crawling into Cheng’s bed to sleep. Cheng himself has strange hang-ups, things he won’t discuss. He’s haunted by something in his past. Sirkka is too polite to push, though the growing closeness she shares with him makes it inevitable that something will give in the end. The possibility of romance is not allowed to dominate the film, however; this is as much a love story between the stranger and the village, between China and Finland, between urban and rural cultures. And it’s full of food that will make your mouth water. Be warned: do not see it with an empty stomach and a full wallet or they will soon be the other way round.

For all that Cheng is the outsider here, writer Hannu Oravisto has been careful not to treat him simply as an exotic object for Finns to gawp at. The cultural differences uncovered here are every bit as startling to him. In one scene, he and Nunjo are delighted to see a reindeer up close. Sirkka’s casual observation that reindeer provide tasty meat results in expressions on their faces not unlike those that white Europeans have when speculating about Chinese people eating dogs. This is about as bleak as relations get, however, with a combination of humour and good faith making it possible to overcome all obstacles – at least until the inevitable happens and Cheng, to whom the villagers have become deeply attached, is faced with the prospect of having to leave.

The film is beautifully lensed by Jari Mutikainen, one of few cinematographers out there who is equally at easy with vast landscapes and close-up pictures of food. Watch it for the idyllic countryside, the enchanting characters and great performances (especially from Hsuan). Stay for the food pictures over the closing credits. Kaurismäki clearly understands that the surest way to an audience’s heart is through its stomach.

Reviewed on: 01 Mar 2020
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Far from his home in Shanghai, Cheng is in search of a cherished benefactor whom he promised to visit. He is welcomed by diner owner Sirkka. He repays her kindness by cooking food that the entire community appreciates.

Director: Mika Kaurismäki

Writer: Hannu Oravisto

Starring: Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko, Lucas Hsuan

Year: 2019

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: Finland, China, UK

Festivals:

Glasgow 2020

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