Filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki (older brother to renowned director Aki Kaurismaki) exhibits the same interests in societal issues as his brother. Like his sibling, his particular tone and perspective is rooted in the commonplace; he also has his younger brother’s affinity for dry humour and sight gags.
Master Cheng tells the story of Cheng (Pak Hon Chu), who arrives at a quiet roadside diner in small-town Finland with his young son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan), following the recent death of his wife back in Shanghai. Cheng is looking for a Finnish friend he met in China. Unable to locate the man, Cheng meets restaurant owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), whose hard-scrabble, hand-to-mouth existence running the restaurant provides Cheng with an opportunity to help.
When a bus load of Chinese tourists turn up requesting food, Cheng’s impromptu offer to cook reveals his considerable skills as a fine dining chef and soon, Chinese food is on the menu every day, attracting a steady stream of customers. When Sirkka invites Cheng and his son to stay for a spell, the tiny populace and idyllic, breathtaking countryside soothe Cheng and his son’s broken hearts. Converting the locals to vegetables, noodles and soup instead of sausages and mash sees a marked improvement in the health of the elderly clientele in the restaurant. Food as nourishment for the soul, or something to that effect.
There have been a few riffs on the concept of ‘food from the heart’, the most notable being Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, though that said, Master Cheng is not even flogging the conceit with any degree of intensity. It’s simply highlighting the breaking down of cultural differences using food and showing the positive effects of Chinese herbal medicine.
Anna-Maija Tuokko and Pak Hon Chu’s sweet-natured and subtle performances help sell the premise, which on paper, threatens to assault the audience with weapons-grade mawkishness. Filtered through Mika Kaurismaki’s sensibility and low key approach, it’s something akin to the tone of Lasse Hallstrom’s output (Chocolat comes to mind), though the level of treacly emotional manipulation and twee is nowhere near as assaultive; it prefers instead to take the audience on a gentler ride. It’s overall message of human connection and empathy wins out, where food and nourishment are literal salves for the human malaise and where compassion and friendship can save lives.