★★★½ - STUFF
- Fish-out-of-water tales have been a globally popular comedic sub-genre ever since movie-making began.
From It Happened One Night to Roman Holiday, Back to the Future, Crocodile Dundee, Pleasantville and The Intouchables, stories about characters fumbling their way through scenarios extremely foreign to them have delighted audiences for decades.
Veteran Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki’s (yes, he’s the elder brother of The Man Without a Past helmer Aki) latest movie is very much pitched in such a crowpleasing vein.
A mysterious Chinese man (Chu Pak Hong) and his young son (Lucas Hsuan) arrive in the picturesque, but empty Pohjanjoki on a mission. However, their presence only confuses the locals at Sirkka’s Diner. The man’s repeated requests of whether anyone knows “Fongtrong”, results in only blank stares.
After diner owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) takes pity on them and offers them a place to stay, “Cheng” spies an opportunity to return the favour when a bus load of Chinese tourists pass through looking for a meal. As Sirkka’s sausage specialities are rejected, Cheng offers to make chicken noodles, which prove to be a massive hit. Although he fends off her attempts to pay him, Sirkka is keen to keep him on, especially after his creative dishes like mandarin chicken and perch soup gain favour with the notoriously fickle and adverse-to-change regular clientele. In return for his help in the kitchen, she promises to do all she can to assist in solving his mystery.
While the plot may be slight and the action somewhat predictable, the delights of Kaurismaki and actor-turned-screenwriter Hannu Oravisto’s tale are in the characters and the details. This is a heartwarming gentle dramedy focused on the seemingly unlikely growing connection between two people seeking to rebuild their lives.
It’s not a film of dramatic moments, but rather slowly revealed past traumas and incremental steps towards a lasting bond. That comes not only with some very universal themes, but also a solid dose of dry Nordic humour (mainly delivered by a face familiar to fans of the New Zealand movie Kiwi Christmas, Kari Väänänen). Expect jokes about Finnish obsessions with sausages and fishing and, unsurprisingly, a scene set in a sauna.
But as well as some mouthwatering food porn, what lifts Master Cheng are two terrific performances from leads Hong and Tuokko. She is a particular revelation, her seemingly brusque and bland exterior hiding some heartbreaking hurts that are slowly and sensitively teased out.
If it’s a life-affirming watch from the other side of the world you’re needing, then Master Cheng might be just the ticket.
- James Croot, STUFF
Master Cheng is now playing at Light House Petone and opens June 11 at Pauatahanui!
In English and Finnish and Mandarin with English subtitles.