Director – Mika Kaurismäki – 2019 – Finland – Cert. PG – 114m
A Chinese chef turns up at a restaurant in a remote Finnish village and impresses the locals with his cooking – charming romantic drama is out in cinemas on Friday, March 11th
A restaurant in a remote part of the Finnish countryside. Cheng (Chu Pak Hong from My Prince Edward, Norris Wang, 2019) and small boy Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) walk into the local restaurant where the former asks for Fongtron. The owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) hasn’t heard of Fongtron and can’t help. He asks customers the same question, but they don’t know either. Cheng barely speaks Finnish, which scarcely helps. He doesn’t look like he’s going away, and when he asks if there’s a hotel, Sirkka points him towards a room that’s available. She attempts to feed the pair before closing up, but the mobile phone-obsessed Niu Niu won’t touch her Finnish sausage and mash.
And he’s not the only one: When a day or so later, a coachload of Chinese tourists turn up, they’re not very interested either. Cheng, sitting at a table, immediately springs to Sirkka’s aid and parleys with the Chinese. He basically sells them a Chinese menu, then takes Sirkka on a shopping expedition to the local store to buy the necessary ingredients. The resultant meal is a roaring success with the Chinese, who promise to stop by on their return trip, as well as with Sirkka who makes more money that day than she has for months. And with Niu Niu, who wolfs it down.
The locals, including the curmudgeonly Romppainen (Kari Väänänen from Night On Earth, Jim Jarmusch, 1991; Leningrad Cowboys Go America, Aki Kaurismäki, 1989), hesitantly try the food themselves and have to admit it’s rather good. Cheng takes Sirkka fishing at the local lake, subsequently turning freshly caught perch into soup. He states that food can heal people. Romppainen has health issues, and over the course of the film his condition improves considerably thanks to Cheng’s soup. A slow thaw takes place as he and fellow locals move from putting up with this foreigner and his different ways to embracing him as a cherished friend.
Similarly, Sirkka takes a great like to him and starts to pay attention to the boy, buying first a football and then a bike to get him socialising with the local kids. Cheng doesn’t ride a bike and, indeed, is horrified by the latter purchase, for reasons which later become apparent.
There’s a degree of mystery to all this – who exactly is Cheng, and the boy, and Fongtron (if Fongtron is indeed a person, not a company or a place or something else entirely) and why has he come to this remote Finnish village. All is revealed in due course, at a leisurely pace, as the tale unfolds. Two local cops periodically drop by, enjoy the cuisine and ask questions about the chef (who, wisely, has refused to take money from Sirkka and thus hasn’t broken any immigration employment laws). But if he’s there illegally, his days may be numbered. And Sirkka desperately wants them not to be.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film doesn’t go the route of food porn (which, with Cheng’s culinary sills, it easily could have done) focusing rather on the meeting, intersection and mutual assimilation of two very different cultures, throwing in a little Tai Chi exercise alongside Cheng’s cooking and accompanying philosophy, while extolling the virtues of rural Finnish living, community, and clean countryside. I feared it might be mawkish or overly sentimental for my tastes, but no, not a bit of it: Mika Kaurismäki’s slow delivery is beautifully judged, Chu is suitably enigmatic while the down-to-earth Tuokko slowly but surely wins you over, as do the actors portraying her customers. It’s a deeply satisfying viewing experience and, as such, thoroughly recommended.
Master Cheng is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, March 11th.