Mika Kaurismäki is the older brother of Aki, the Kaurismäki who makes the art films which tend to get a wider international distribution than the more mainstream films of Mika. But in the case of Master Cheng, Mika did get a UK release which I missed at the time. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find it popping up on BBC4 in the slot usually reserved for subtitled European crime drama series. After watching it I noted that IMDb carried reviews by Jennie Kermode (Eye for Film) and the Guardian/Observer pairing of Peter Bradshaw and Wendy Ide. Kermode, who I always find very reliable, gave the film 4 and a half stars out of 5, Bradshaw and Ide both gave 2 out of 5. I’m with Jennie Kermode all the way.

Sirkka and Niu Niu

The narrative begins with Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) and his young son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) arriving in Lapland by bus. The small settlement has a diner where the pair go to enquire about the person they want to find, ‘Fongtron’. Nobody in the diner can help them but the proprietor Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko) is friendly and helpful and finds them a place to stay. Niu Niu is seemingly wedded to his phone but Cheng is eager to find ‘Fongtron’ and keeps quizzing people. But when a coach full of Chinese tourists breaks down outside the diner and the passengers reject the local offer of sausage and mashed potato, Cheng reveals his true colours as a ‘master Chef’ from Shanghai and before long Sirkka’s diner has the finest Chinese food in Lapland. At this point we realise that this has all the makings of a comedy-romance (not a ‘rom-com’). The romance is taken slowly and carefully, the comedy is based on the interaction of Chen and the local, mainly elderly, men. It’s possible to dismiss the film as ‘conventional’ and to cynically complain about the tourist friendly footage of hills, lakes, forests and reindeer. They are present and important, but only audiences with a hard heart can dismiss the film’s charm and the skill with which its narrative is presented. It’s also a film about good food and as Jennie Kermode warns: “Do not see it with an empty stomach and a full wallet or they will soon be the other way round.”

Getting on in the kitchen . . .

I’m particularly pleased that the script uses the ‘good food is delicious and healthy’ angle. I was very impressed by Pak Hon Chu’s knife skills in the kitchen and I thought that actually the gentle comedy was not based on terrible stereotypes, nor did it overplay the ‘noble migrant’ angle – and definitely not the ‘cute kid’ typing. I don’t want to spoil the narrative, but I will say that Cheng intends to return to China. A couple of reviews compare the film to Babette’s Feast (Denmark 1987) and it’s true there are some similarities but that film starred the luminescent Stéphane Audran in one of her best performances. It was also a literary adaptation from a Karen Blixen story. Master Cheng doesn’t aim quite so high, but it succeeds at what it does. My own comparison would be with The Band’s Visit (Israel-France-US 2007), not a ‘food film’ as such but another story in which foreign visitors end up in a small remote settlement and a form of magic develops.

The two older guys who form a comedy duo, Romppainen (Kari Väänänen, right) and Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri)
Cheng and the two older guys in Lapland’s summer night

My viewing partner, who has recently been turned off by the violence in some of the European crime dramas on BBC4, sat through the whole film and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it too and if it does act as a promotion for tourism in Lapland, that’s fine. (I’d like to go there by train). I was going to offer just one slight criticism that the romance perhaps takes a little too long to take off and at 112 minutes, the film might be a tad too long. Reflecting on the film a little later, I think that its slow pace is necessary and makes the pay-off in terms of the relationships more rewarding. The performances all round are very, the cinematography by Jari Mutikainen in ‘Scope is ravishing and the music by Anssi Tikanmäki is excellent. All in all a joyful entertainment that made us feel better. That’s got to be a good thing. Master Cheng is on BBC iPlayer for the next twelve months and I think, on other streamers/VOD in many territories. If you are looking for a gentle, humanist romance and social comedy, give it a go.