Calm and serene as the green landscape of Northern Finland where it is set, Mika Kaurismäki’s Master Cheng (original title: Mestari Cheng) flows at a gentle pace. Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) and his young son Niuniu (Lucas Hsuan) arrive in the remote village of Pohjanjoki, Lapland, with only a name to guide them: Fongtron. Entering the local diner, they find it almost empty, except for a few elderly men and the owner, Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko). Politely bowing, Cheng approaches one after another, but no one has heard of Fongtron. With no leads, and nowhere else to go, Cheng and Niuniu stay in the diner, a place that only serves the rather unappealing fare of sausage and mashed potatoes.
Cheng and his son stand out as foreigners among the elderly patrons of the restaurant, while they – and their food – appear just as foreign to him. Speaking in English, they try to be polite and friendly, but the distance between them is palpable. This is a film that takes its time, the narrative unfolding slowly. Their presence in Pohjanjoki raises questions: what has brought Cheng and his son so far from Shanghai, and where is the boy’s mother? But Kaurismäki takes his time revealing the details of their situation, and in the meantime, audiences immerse themselves in the slow, warm, atmosphere of summer in rural Lapland. Luckily for the father and son pair, the lovely Sirkka takes pity on her foreign customers and offers them a place to stay.
Pak Hon Chu imbues Cheng with a sorrowful dignity and an unwavering moral code. He’s the kind of person who pays his debts, and as he stays on in Pohjanjoki, searching for the elusive Fongtron, he tries to make himself useful, and succeeds through his skills in the kitchen. Anna-Maija Tuokko as Sirkka makes a lively foil to Cheng’s character, and its easy to like the attractive owner of the diner as she works hard trying to break even. Lucas Hsuan conveys the loneliness, boredom, sorrow and frustration of Niuniu, dragged across the globe by his father. The onscreen rapport between them all is one of the film’s best features.
There are films adored by audiences and abhorred by critics, and Master Cheng falls neatly into that category. It will not jar or distress you, especially as so much of its narrative is utterly predictable. Smooth and peaceful as the neighborhood lake where the locals fish and drink, it offers the consoling, if not entirely accurate, reassurance that the world is a good place filled with people who are good at heart. If you are not overly troubled by a casual and rather stereotypical treatment of the encounter between different cultures and other issues that are somewhat glided over, you will probably enjoy basking in the warm glow of this feel-good film’s placid rhythms.
Finland/UK/China/2020/114 min/English, Finnish, Mandarin, with English and Hebrew subtitles
Director: Mika Kaurismäki; Screenplay: Hanou Oravisto; Cinematography: Jari Mutikainen; Editing: Tuuli Kuittinen; Music: Anssi Tikanmäki; Cast: Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko, Lucas Hsuan, Matti Loiri, Kari Vaanen