A bus rolls into a small village. A road sign tells us that we are in Pohjanjoki, which we later learn is in North Finland. A man and a boy step off, laden down with luggage. They are both Chinese, which is quite unusual round here.
In broken English, he asks the locals one by one if they know Fongtron. Everyone is bemused. Doesn’t sound like anyone round here. Maybe its that construction firm in Levi, 40km away? Since no-one seems able to help, the man, Cheng, tries the local food – a variation on sausages and mash. His son breaks off from playing games on his phone to cast an appalled grimace at the prospect of having to eat such muck.
In a certain type of film, racial tensions would now start to build, but everyone here is lovely, especially the restaurant owner Sirkka. She finds Cheng a room, as the nearest hotel is in Levi. Some of the diners are apprehensive when he starts to cook them Chinese food. One of the older men wonders whether a “white, heterosexual man” could eat something like that. He is castigated by his mate, who asks “but are you a white, heterosexual man?”
Even the passing bus-full of selfie stick-brandishing Chinese tourists are treated by director Mika Kaurismäki with affable indulgence. When they refuse to eat the Finnish food, Sirkka takes Cheng to the nearest supermarket (which is, of course in Levi) where he buys a wok, sets of chopsticks and appropriate meat and vegetables. Everybody is satisfied.
Its safe to say that there aren’t many car crashes or special CGI effects at play. The plot ambles along at its own pace, with the Fongtron mystery being quietly resolved half way through the film. The people from different cultures get to understand each other better – the old Finns take Cheng to a sauna, while he teaches them Tai Chi. The kids play football. Life goes on.
This is, then, a film that could get quite irritating very quickly. But there is an air of tragedy which makes it more than just another liberal film which doesn’t understand why we can’t just be nicer to each other. Cheng’s son, Liu Liu is haunted by the early death of his mother in a car crash, and has nightmares. This means that Cheng is overprotective, not even allowing him to ride a bike.
Similarly, we gradually perceive the sadness behind Sirkka’s friendly demeanour. Like Cheng, she has lost a spouse – though hers left her when she couldn’t bear children and found someone who could. At first she says that she lives alone because “men are so stupid”, but then asks “how could I find a man anyway? Everyone is over 60 or married or drunk or both”.
With its depiction of the everyday life of everyday people, the film is in the tradition of Kaurismäki’s more famous brother Aki, who has recently become increasingly political, and placed the defence of refugees and freedom of movement in the centre of his films. Like his brother, Mika stands unconditionally on the side of the outsiders who have been rejected by bourgeois society.
This film doesn’t quite achieve the quality of Aki’s recent films like Le Havre or The Other Side of Hope. There’s little character development and the plot doesn’t contain any real surprizes. It may well appeal to people who salivate at languorous shots of food being cooked, but I’m afraid I don’t belong to that demographic.
But there is still much here to enjoy. The film has such a good-natured charm that you immediately forgive its weaknesses. The main characters are quite obviously good people and we wish them well. Yet our knowledge that Cheng’s visa has run out means that we know that things must soon change. The atmosphere in the restaurant is almost always good natured, but there is a frisson of fear whenever the local cops pay a visit.
Master Cheng in Pohjanjoki is a film about loneliness and hope, about the healing power of food and the kindness of strangers. It stars a multiracial cast of people with normal shaped bodies. It is a film which appeals for our empathy and won’t take “No” for an answer. It may not be making any profound statement, but as an artistic experience it is entirely satisfying. And there are far too few films about which you can say even that.