What is it about cultural clashes that make them the basis of so many movies, from Rush Hour to My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Perhaps it’s their universality – many people would have had similar comedic, frustrating or amusing experiences either through holidays, migration or marriage. Or maybe it’s a perfect set-up to explore the breadth of human experience (conflict, resolution, understanding) in under two hours.
Master Cheng falls in this category and is told in English, Mandarin and Finnish. Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) is a Chinese man who arrives at a roadside diner in Pohjanjoki, Finland with his young son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan), in search of a person he once met in China. Cheng is grieving the loss of his wife, and his son is sullen and equally miserable, but they are united in this odd quest. The locals and the diner’s owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) are friendly, but they have no idea how to help him.
When a group of Chinese tourists coincidentally arrive at the diner, they are unimpressed by the mashed potatoes and sausages at the buffet table, and this is when Cheng springs into action. Turns out, he was a chef in Shanghai and whips up delicious chicken noodle soup and stir-fry vegetables in no time.
Sirkka has a good feeling about Cheng and his cooking skills so she invites him and Niu Niu to stay for as long as they want.
What follows is a heartwarming tale of people trying to find human connection in the least likely place. The Chinese tourists might be relieved to find familiar food in a small Finnish town, but the locals are a tougher nut to crack and are averse to change. They are also suspicious of Cheng. Is he on the run? Is he a people smuggler? Is that even his son?
Cheng perseveres and combines food they know with Chinese flavours. Because of this, there are beautiful shots of food being prepared: fish being filleted, vegetables being sliced and diced, meat being cleaved, noodles dunked in hot water. The final products include fish soup using freshwater perch from the lake, sweet and sour fish and braised reindeer with steamed vegetables, all of which the locals love. Cheng pushes further, explaining that food can heal and eventually the people believe it. They credit it for their reduced ailments, from aches to menstrual cramps.
In turn, they insist that Cheng share in their experiences, swimming in cold lakes and sitting in a sauna. In their own way, this hardened populace and idyllic countryside help Cheng and Niu Niu heal.
Master Cheng, just like Chocolat, falls into a cultural clash subgenre: food as a uniting force. In both movies the locals are suspicious about the newcomers and their fancy food. However, they relent and become converted when they realise that the newcomers have changed their palate, life and outlook.
Master Cheng treads carefully to avoid falling into tropes, and it is a balancing act. In many Hollywood movies, people of colour are often side characters, portrayed as wise, magical or simply act as a moral guide for the protagonist. Think The Karate Kid or The Last Samurai.
In Master Cheng, Cheng is the main character; he has autonomy, and it’s his actions that propel the movie forward. Still, it sometimes feels as if the director, Mika Kaurismäki, tried too hard to drive home the point that Cheng is Chinese and a foreigner in Finland, with shots of him practising tai chi and singing a heartfelt song in Mandarin.
Pak Hon Chu and Tuokko are terrific in the movie and the reason why it can oscillate between comedy, romance and drama. Pak Hon Chu in particular plays Cheng with layers, showcasing his affable personality when he interacts with people but also his simmering rage and misery when he is alone. Tuokko matches his performance, starting out as a no-nonsense café owner and then displaying grief and playfulness in equal measure. Both their characters have undeniable chemistry, with a dash of practicality.
Finland is an uncredited character in the movie. It features heavily in the backdrop, with reindeers milling around, a spring with water so clear you can drink from it and a vast, beautiful landscape with no humans in sight. It is even a discussion point between Cheng and Sirkka as they gaze over a lake in twilight.
“What do you hear?” Cheng asks Sirkka.
“Exactly. I’m from Shanghai. A big city. You can hear how quiet the sounds are here.”
That line really encapsulates the movie. It is quiet, languid and makes you want to go into the great outdoors.
Watch Master Cheng
Make Chinese pork and cabbage dumplings
Find the recipe by Poh Ling Yeow at SBS Food.
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