3 Jun 2020

Master Cheng

From At The Movies, 7:32 pm on 3 June 2020

Dan Slevin reviews a romantic film about a Chinese chef stuck in rural Finland.

Dan Slevin: In this game, usually the last refuge of a scoundrel is to call a film 'predictable'.

"Of course you think it's predictable," readers and listeners cry! "You watch hundreds of films a year, of course they will all start blend in together. We only get to watch one film a fortnight - if we're lucky - so everything we see seems fresh and innovative."

Well, I'm sorry to say that our first film this week would seem predictable even if you've never seen a film before in your life. It is a tale as old as time, as they say, only the finer details provide a little bit of novelty.

Master Cheng is about a great Chinese chef (played by Pak Hon Chu) who finds himself stranded in rural Finland and language difficulties mean that most communication between him and the locals occurs in a kind of butchered English.

With his young son, Cheng is looking for a character called Fongtron but nobody of that name exists in the town. Disconsolate, and about to give up, a coach load of Chinese tourists breaks down outside the diner belonging to pretty Syrkka whose only culinary achievements appears to be a dozen different ways with sausage, mashed potato and coleslaw.

Cheng sees an opportunity to help out and with the help of the local convenience store, finds enough noodles and chicken to feed the hungry masses. So good is his food that the tour guide promises to return regularly and Syrkka sees a chance to team up with Cheng - even though he has no work permit. That will be important later on, mark my words.

It doesn't take long before Cheng's skills are also winning over the crusty old locals, who think they are far too white and heterosexual to eat exotic food like Chinese but by using fresh ingredients like the fish he catches from the lake and local reindeer they discover that his cooking not only tastes good but it makes them feel good, too.

And the widower Cheng finds that the bonds between him and the lonely spinster Syrkka (played by Anna-Maija Tuokko) are becoming about more than just satisfied customers. He slowly melts and reveals the secrets of his past and she starts to hope that the diner in the Finnish countryside isn't the end of the world after all.

Directed by the rather more commercially minded of the two Finnish filmmaking Kaurismaki brothers, Mika, this is a fish-out-of-water story we've seen and read and heard a thousand times - Stranger arrives in town and the locals are initially suspicious but eventually, his special skills come in handy and they all learn something about each other and grow and all that.

He could be a samurai or a gunfighter, a poet or a teacher, but either way, he'll woo the lonely widow and build a home in this strange land.

Master Cheng is an especially conservative version of the tale, romanticising everything it touches. Cheng is Chinese in all sorts of stereotyped ways - he does Tai Chi, hangs lanterns, lets off fireworks.

The locals are proudly and iconoclastically Finnish, introducing our hero to all the most famous aspects of their culture.

We mentioned reindeer before but he also manages a sauna, smacked about with birch branches, skinny dipping in the lake and boozing. By the end, you'd swear they were all made for each other.

The film makes it seems as if provincial Finland has never seen a Chinese person - which I find difficult to believe, frankly - and that despite only being a half hour's drive from the next town and its large supermarket and pizza joint they are happily blinkered in their attitudes to both cuisine and culture.

Never mind, this is crowd-pleasing and unchallenging tosh which might be just the ticket during times like these. And the food preparation sequences look lovely and I expect will make you hungry. I fancy some herbed reindeer myself right about now.

MASTER CHENG is rated PG is playing in select cinemas across New Zealand now.

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