© MFA/Filmagentinnen

Master Cheng in Pohjanjoki (Master Cheng, Mestari Cheng)
Finland/China 2019

Opening 30 Jul 2020

Directed by: Mika Kaurismäki
Writing credits: Hannu Oravisto
Principal actors: Pak Hon Chu, Lucas Hsuan, Vesa-Matti Loiri, Anna-Maija Tuokko, Kari Väänänen

Ever heard of the Kuarismäki brothers? These two imaginative Finns have made numerous films over the decades, creating Villealfa Film Productions with the help of friends, to become the third production company in Finland. Success was through low or no-budget filmmaking, coming on strong in the 1980s. We've recently seen the success of the younger brother, Aki Kuarismäki, winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in 2017 with his film, The Other Side of Hope. Maki Kuarismäki has also worked in film and television and has made several documentaries. So even though we’ve seen more of Aki’s work with his award-winning films, both brothers share a unique Finnish vision integrated with a sense of humor that sets their work apart from others. The humor is truly unique, as can be seen in Maki’s latest tragi-comedy, Master Cheng in Pohjanjoki.

Master Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) arrives by bus with his son, Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan), at a remote Finnish village in Lapland, in search of his old friend, Fong Tron. Cheng approaches and bows to each customer in a small café but finds that no one understands him. First of all, he doesn’t speak Finnish and his English isn’t quite clear. Seeing their disorientation, the café owner, Sirkkas (Anna-Maija Tuokko), takes them in her care and finds them a room where they can stay until they can get their bearings. It doesn’t take long before the community embraces them, once they're witness to the true skills of Master Cheng—that of a professional chef. He quickly takes over the reins of the café and is soon cooking Chinese food for the never-ending stream of Chinese tourists. Better yet, even the locals discover they like Chinese food better than their own. Meanwhile, we come to understand that the wife and mother of this duo died just before they began their journey. They thus need time to heal, which includes sharing their cultural traditions with their newly found friends.

This story is very dreamy and has a broad sense of humor. The acting is well done and the story well told. The only disturbing factor is that it seems to be made for two reasons: one to show that the Finns need to be worldlier and accept that foreign cultures are coming their way; and second, that indeed the Chinese are coming to town. China has a huge population who wants to see the world, shown through these exceptional characters. This film predominantly shows that the Chinese culture is the leader, what with its excellent food, politeness, and cultural traditions. I think it is a film well worth seeing, but I honestly loved The Other Side of Hope from Mika’s younger brother, Aki, which I’d like to see again. (Shelly Schoeneshoefer)

Second Opinion

Taking elements from the East and from the West, and gently mixing with carefully selected cast ingredients, chosen dramatic herbs and an assortment of Nordic comedic spices, Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki serves up a heartwarming buffet-style dramedy. Hannu Oravisto’s recipe called for gentle plot handling, relying more on delicate details in the dialogue and the characters endeavors.

Arriving in the tiny remote Finnish village of Pohjanjoki with minimal clues and small son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan) in tow, Cheng (Chu Pak Hong) has traveled halfway around the world on a mission. Quietly reserved, he politely asks the proprietress (Anna-Maija Tuokko) of Sirrka’s Café and patrons the same question. Do you know Fongtrong? The answers are courteous and repeatedly negative. By closing time, taking pity on them Sirkka gives them a room for the night. This stretches to many more nights when a busload of foreign tourists arrives and Cheng saves the day. Subsequently, his mastery in the kitchen convinces even the most skeptical local to try the strange dishes. Frequenters Romppainen (Kari Väänänen) and Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri) become Cheng’s allies inducting him into some very Finnish customs, while Nunjo stretches his wings with Sirkka’s encouragement. Cheng, now on a tangential course absorbing the bounty of good fortune, is ill prepared for reality when it comes knocking if not for the help of newfound friends.

The film’s pièce de résistance is Hong and Tuokko’s deliberate, delectably delivered sensitive performances. Anssi Tikanmäki’s lively ethnically mixed music plays hand-in-hand with cinematographer Jari Mutikainen’s perceptive location shots in Lapland and China. Stirred into Oravisto’s screenplay—adaptation by Kaurismäki and Sami Keksi-Vähälä—are marinated universal themes regarding: age, gender, personal trauma, loss, and new beginnings. Even though editor Tuuli Kuittinen took his eye off the pot whereby certain scenes outcome are obvious from the get-go— better he had left them out of the overly long film. Still, savor Mestari Cheng’s delicious life affirmations concerning change and acceptance and, be sure you eat beforehand. (Marinell Haegelin)

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