Master Cheng arrives in selected theatres on March 11th.
Mika Kaurismäki’s latest feature, Mestari Cheng or Master Cheng, is a feel-good romantic comedy and a cross-cultural appreciation of two different cultures colliding. While enjoyable for the most part, it occasionally falls flat due to its easily-remedied central conflicts and never quite reaches its full potential.
In Master Cheng, we meet a Chinese chef, Cheng (Pak Hon Chu), who, following the death of his wife, decides to travel to a remote village in Finland with his son, Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan), to look for an old friend. But on arrival, Cheng cannot find this mystery man and finds himself boarding at a local diner with owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) in return for helping to run the kitchen. Initially, Cheng’s unique and exotic meals are met with disapproval from the locals as they shun new tastes. However, the small community quickly welcomes Cheng, who brings them new flavours and new culinary adventures, soon becoming a beloved community member.
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However, despite its warmth, there are problems. For example, Cheng’s son feels lonely and alienated in their new environment and wanders off into the deep Finnish forest, where he gets lost. This would generate an urgent conflict in many other films, yet this doesn’t happen here. In fact, by the time Sirkka and Cheng realise the boy has disappeared, he has been brought back by one of the town’s locals, with the incident never to be mentioned or reflected on again. Similarly, Cheng initially helps out in the kitchen for one day only due to Chinese tourists stopping for lunch. While the – otherwise fictional – town of Pohjanjoki could easily be a beloved tourist spot, it feels like such an improbable coincidence.
The movie’s narrative leaves us with a film that often feels overly simple and perfect. The only actual conflict that arises and brings about a turning point in the plot is Cheng’s visa expiring. Here we find Cheng faced with a dilemma of either going back to his previous, hectic life in the metropolis of Shanghai or staying in the peaceful and idyllic Finnish countryside. Of course, his decision is further complicated by his growing love for Sirkka.
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Make no mistake, Master Cheng is a light-hearted and enjoyable film. On the surface, it is a heartwarming romantic comedy with likeable characters and stunning cinematography by Jari Mutikainen that captures a melting pot of cultures, from Nordic sunsets to mouth-watering Asian meals. Meanwhile, the film’s humour sits within continuous misunderstandings due to cultural differences and language barriers. Here both the Finnish locals and Cheng communicate via broken English, ensuring neither culture is the target of misplaced humour. Meanwhile, the trademark Nordic humour we love comes from two grumpy but lovable old men who help Cheng assimilate into everyday life by taking him on a boat ride, fishing and, of course, to a sauna.
Once we look deeper, however, some of the film’s flaws inevitably come to the surface. Apart from the language barrier, the portrayal of the cultural differences, regrettably, at times, feels stereotypical. For example, Cheng is more reserved and distant than the jolly and friendly Finnish locals. Of course, this could be due to his grief and place as a “stranger in a strange land”. Yet Cheng also acts this way around his son, embodying the strict, distant Asian father stereotype. Equally problematic is the lack of focus on Cheng’s son, Niu Niu. His viewpoint is never explored beyond his quick escape into the woods. Given that Sirkka and Cheng’s romantic relationship derives from loss on both sides, surely it would have been worth exploring Niu Niu’s feelings as well?
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Kaurismäki’s film is undoubtedly positive and light in construct, but sadly, it does not showcase anything we haven’t seen before. Here the film’s initial conversations on the value and power of globalisation eventually get lost in a romantic soup. This is a pity as Master Cheng could have developed these themes further as it explored the ability of people to learn from one another regardless of cultural and linguistic differences.
While it is often predictable and lacking in ambition Master Cheng is still an enjoyable and positive film. Its universal and life-affirming themes are topped off with some genuinely humorous moments that are well worth your time. Here Kaurismäki’s feel-good romantic comedy joyously avoids the tropes of American cinema, and while it may not quite reach its potential, Master Cheng is as warm as a Finnish sauna on a cold icy day.
Kaurismäki’s feel-good romantic comedy joyously avoids the tropes of American cinema, and while it may not quite reach its potential, Master Cheng is as warm as a Finnish sauna on a cold icy day.