Spice of Life

Master Cheng (2019)

Written for RAF News March 2022

A Chinese man (Pak Hon Chu) and his son wander into a  quiet bar in a small Finnish village looking for someone or something, no-one quite understands, and so he will patiently wait day after day until he finds someone who does. The patrons of the bar are simple folk, mostly older men accustom to their daily plate of sausage and potatoes. Little do they know that visitor Cheng is a chef and that food is a language that breaks all barriers.

The Finnish countryside lends a fairytale quaintness to this frothy tale of strangers coming together. Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), the owner of the bar, offers a room to Cheng and his son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) – for which he repays by cooking for a busload of Chinese tourists who happen by. Not only turning a profit, but awakening something in the regulars, this becomes the basis of their arrangement.

Whilst it seems to be the perfect time to release a film about international relations, of compassion between cultures, the dynamic between Master Cheng and Sirkka appears horribly misjudged. Intended to be a light, life-affirming romance, their lack of chemistry tilts into toxicity.  When Cheng announces that his son wants to go home, that his Visa has run out and he will be deported, Sirkka in a shocking show of complete self-centredness slams a door in his face, because she knows that business will slow down once again. The film appears to be unaware of just how intrusive and exploitative this supposed love-interest comes across.

Cheng himself is reduced to an antiquated stereotype – a quiet mystic who throws out simplified fortune-cookie teachings whilst knocking up dishes that can miraculously treat menstrual cramps and cancer. You’d think from the towns incredulity at the sight of chicken noodle soup that this village is so remote that it doesn’t have recipe books or the internet. If it weren’t for Niu Niu glued to his smartphone you’d think the film was from many decades past, at least then it would make more sense.

When Cheng admits to some of the bar patrons that he turned to alcohol after the death of his wife, they offer him a toast. In fact every scene following this, he is given alcohol. It seems the only thing keeping Cheng here is guilt by way of his captor and this tight-knit town. No wonder they don’t want to let him go, with his miracle cure broth.

English is the mode of communication between Cheng and the rest of town, so naturally as a second language it comes out a little broken on both sides, leaving little room for nuance. The humour that occurs from mispronunciation is the one joke that the film drives into the ground, and judging by the orientalism going on this is surely not an attempt at authenticity.