Dour, widowed Shanghai chef Mr Cheng (Chu Pak Hong) comes to the one-horse Lapland town of Pohjanjoki in search of a mysterious person called “Fong Tran”. Marooned 40 kilometres from the nearest hotel, he lodges with Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), a divorcee trying to make a go of it at her late aunt’s roadside diner. But when a coach party of Chinese tourists is horrified at the mere thought of a Finnish buffet lunch, Cheng comes to the rescue, whipping up Chinese food in Sirkka’s kitchen.
Cheng’s ability to cook edible food brings more visitors, including a gaggle of feisty pensioners from the old people’s home hoping for a Daoist pick-me-up, and a crocodile of children from the local school, who inevitably have a catalogue of allergies and intolerances longer than the menu. He befriends local old fogies Romppainen (Kari Väänänen) and Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri), who drag him fishing and subject him to a sauna, and his son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) slowly comes out of his shell.
Stick with this one-film-a-month blog of every Finnish movie ever released, and Mestari Cheng will swing around again some time in the early 2040s, when I am probably long gone and the automated updates merely look like I am still there. But since I saw it at the cinema today, I might as well write it up out of order, as a fascinating glimpse of where the Finnish film industry is fated to end up eight decades after the most recent entry in my chronological watchathon, which is currently at the cusp of 1939. Mika Kaurismäki’s little Lapland romance is a carefully constructed advertorial that pretends to sell Chinese food to the Finns, but is really intent on selling Finland to the Chinese.
“IT’S SAUSAGE DAY!” proclaims the sign outside Sirkka’s café, leaving me the lone giggler in a midday cinema full of baffled Finns. Because every day is sausage day in Finland, particularly in the sort of joyless canteen that Sirkka runs. Some suspension of disbelief is required, not that Cheng can acquire ingredients from a Lapland super market, but that the effort will not bankrupt him. One of the spin-offs of having my every purchase logged by the local supermarket chain is that I get sent Statto-the-Statman reports about my purchases, and I can tell you that a household in Finland that tries to cook Chinese food every night ends up spending double the local average on its food budget.
I have sometimes succeeded in getting Finns to eat Chinese food. My finest moment was on Hainan island a few years ago, when I was the Pied Piper that led a dozen disbelieving conference-goers to a restaurant where they had what several proclaimed to be the best meal of their lives, and drank the entire local supply of Tsingtao. But all too often, it has been an uphill struggle that comes with a checklist of intolerances real and imagined, kvetching about spice and mewling about dessert.
“There’s a new Chinese restaurant in town,” my girlfriend has been heard to say. “Let’s go there soon before the Finns ruin it.”
Kaurismäki’s film also requires the audience to believe that Finns presented with fish in mandarin sauce or sweet and sour vegetables will not recoil in horror. I once cooked a green curry for a bunch of Finns, and was forced to dilute it so much that it ended up more like a watery coconut soup. For reasons not worth going into here (but discussed at length elsewhere), Finns often scrimp on the correct ingredients, struggle to get the right heat on an electric hob, and fail to patronise higher-end restaurants, leaving much of the hinterland mired in buffets of grim 1950s gruel. But Kaurismäki still has a faith that was bludgeoned out of me long ago: that Finns fed good food will clamour for more, and not simply throw it down their gullets and ask if there’s ice cream for afters.
Offered perch soup, Romppainen is initially sceptical.
“Is it Finnish perch?” he asks, suspiciously (again, I was the lone laugher in the cinema).
When he is assured that, yes, the perch is not an immigrant, he quaffs it down with gusto, becoming one of Master Cheng’s first and most enthusiastic converts, along with the local womenfolk, who find that Cheng’s soup is a good remedy for period pains. Thanks, Finland.
Romppainen later reveals that he is dying of cancer, but that Master Cheng’s dishes have changed his life. He is still going to die, but Master Cheng’s food has given him hope. In a discovery not unfamiliar from many Chinese foodie films, what he means is that the food has brought him joy. Some might find this claim rather patronising, and admittedly, it wouldn’t play so well if, say, a bunch of German tourists descended on a French town, proclaimed the local food crap, and demanded that a German chef prepare their favourites. But there is an unsurpassed bliss in Chinese food, that I fell in love with when I was a child and that I have never shaken off, and when I am as old as Romppainen, I expect I shall feel the same. And while cultural relativism has its place, some cuisines are just better than others.
The film bears some comparison with Naoko Ogigami’s Kamome Shokudo (2006, Seagull Diner) a similar hands-across-the-water film about a bunch of Japanese nutters who decide to open a café in Helsinki. But, conspicuously this is not an Asian director trying to get to grips with a Finnish subject, but a Finnish director trying to flog Finland abroad, so we are consequently staring up the microscope in the other direction. Kaurismäki and Hannu Oravisto’s script has a handful of missteps that betray their origins – Cheng bows to everyone like a stereotypical Japanese tourist, and is momentarily taken aback by the prospect of eating reindeer, as if, in the words of famed diplomat Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, the Chinese wouldn’t eat anything with four legs that wasn’t a chair. More tellingly, a school teacher blunders into Sirkka’s café proclaiming that her pupils have no experience of Asian food, which is plainly not true, because several of them are Asian. Then again, as the unnamed teacher, Helka Periaho only has a couple of scenes to establish whether or not her character is a blinkered mentalist, and the jury’s still out on that.
Cheng teaches the Finns to live again, but they do the same for him. Distracted and driven since his wife’s death in Shanghai, he finds in Lapland a place of exultant quiet and calm, vistas of endless fells, and reindeer loping through the mists of ancient forests.
“There’s so much space here,” he comments to Niu Niu. And I would add that you can see it, too. Finland doesn’t have smog, and in a scene liable to cause a lot of upset tourist stomachs over the next few years, Sirkka even demonstrates that you can just scoop up and drink a handful of water from the lake. Any lake…? I’m sure we are about to find out.
The East-meets-West theme is signified even in the opening shots, as an erhu and an accordion sound complimentary notes. We might forgive it a plot so thin that it only stretches out for movie length because nobody bothers to have a proper conversation about Cheng’s backstory. Despite this, the film contains such multitudes that it could easily form the basis of a TV series. Apart from the obvious scope for Cheng’s past (and Sirkka’s future, as hinted at in a closing coda), a longer, episodic running time would have allowed the main characters more time to develop their chemistry. As it is, the Cheng-Sirkka romance kicks off in a perfunctory fashion, as if they are last two standing in an onscreen game of musical chairs, although as their relationship develops, the two actors do get have some moments of believable affection.
As Sirkka, Anna-Maija Tuokko is a tad under-written, or perhaps just realistically Finnish, shouting a lot about the stupidity of men and hectoring Cheng about the need to speak up and be blunt about it. In a naturalistic touch, it’s not necessarily the love of a good woman that perks Cheng up, but the acceptance of a wider community. The septuagenarian Vesa-Matti Loiri, once a rotund, operatic singer, now a lithe little twig like a deflated Falstaff, has a melancholy moment that will mean more to Finns than foreigners, mournfully singing his own “Lapland Summer” as if delivering his own elegy – it is a song about the transience of happiness and the brevity of life, “Mut pitkä vain on talven valta” (But oh so long is the power of winter). Master Cheng counters with a song of his own, “In a Distant Place” (在那遙遠的地方) one of the best-known songs in China, written by Wang Luobin in 1939 to a Kazakh folk melody, and loaded with a similar elegiac quality. But if Mestari Cheng is a last hurrah for Loiri and Kaurismäki-stable regular Väänänen, it’s also a noteworthy appearance by Lucas Hsuan as the sulky Niu Niu, who manages the rare feat for a child actor of not acting like a child actor.
The closing credits feature a smorgasbord of beautiful shots of high-end Chinese food, which even Master Cheng would have trouble whipping up with three packets of instant noodles and some condemned chicken from R-Kioski. It is, indeed, technically possibly to cook Chinese food using Finnish ingredients, although one wonders what digital tech wizardry Kaurismäki had to employ to stop the aubergines browning within seconds of being sliced.
Jonathan Clements is the author of An Armchair Traveller’s History of Finland and A Brief History of China. He has likened getting Finns to eat real Chinese food to teaching Irish ducks how to read Jivvanese.