Master Cheng – Film Review
by Hugh Maguire
Director – Mika Kaurismäki
Writer – Hannu Oravisto
Stars – Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko, Lucas Hsuan
The great art-house cinema hit of 1987 was Babette’s Feast, the Danish film based on the short story by Isak Dinesen (1885-1962). The Oscar-winning film told of the impact of the accomplished chef, Babette, on an austere Christian community in Jutland. Fleeing the chaos of Paris, the collapse of the Second Empire and the ensuing Commune, the penniless and ship-wrecked Babette is rescued by two sisters and lives in the village for years. Through circumstance she comes into a huge sum of money which she squanders on a once in a lifetime meal, its richness and wonder transforming the guests at the table, righting wrongs and warming hearts following years of deluded and unnecessary austerity. The food and the love it represents, transform their lives. Something of the same essence lurks at the heart of Master Cheng, although that may be giving this slight film too much credit.
In essence, a Chinese chef and widower, turns up in a remote Finish community with a surly son in tow and through the sheer wizardry of his accomplished cooking transforms the fortunes of the local eatery, and falls for the owner along the way. His cooking is perceived as healing and whereas Babette’s feast healed the soul Master Cheng’s wizardry in the kitchen heals more practically, menstruation pains, ‘male problems’ and more besides. It is a straightforward tale that does not delve too deeply and would prefer that nagging questions are not only unanswered but not asked in the first place. Like how did the father and son gain entry into Finland in the first place? The premise of their arrival in the remote community is stretching things somewhat. Nonetheless, everyone plays their part and, perhaps refreshingly, there is no great angst – so prevalent in contemporary cinema. Everyone is likeable, even Master Cheng who is occasionally too much of a Mr Bean like character. Indeed this film is or would have been, absolutely perfect airline fare in the days when airlines had one screen and one screen only, take it or leave it. Already replete with the welcoming drink and in-flight meal the general intention was that passengers would sleep and that a movie would help distract and keep them calm. There is nothing to jolt on screen and it tells its tale like many films of the type, one thinks of the hugely successful Circle of Friends (1995). However, in matters of detail and fact, it does something of a disservice to the cuisine of the locals and Lapland in particular. True it may not have the complexity of other cuisines but there is much to savour, those lovely rye breads, wild berries and admittedly ubiquitous reindeer. If the narrative was transferred the other way around with a hapless Fin turning up in remote China and the local yokels being repaired by his kitchen work one wonders if the film would have been made in the first place.