"A love close to paradise": eat, drink, love

A love close to paradise 6 points

mestari chengFinland/China, 2019

Direction: Mika Kaurismäki

Film script: Hannu Oravisto

Duration: 115 minutes

Interpreters: Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko. Lucas Hsuan, Kari Vääanänen

Premiere only in rooms.

The title of this film in Spanish announces its generic belonging, the romantic comedy. The name of the director, the opposite perspective: some detail that is not inherent to a genre film, a “touch” that makes it unique. As prolific as irregular, Mika Kaurismäki –Aki’s younger brother, chronologically and cinematographically– he never stopped being a filmmaker with concerns that are not those of industrial cinema. The concern to say something, even if it is nothing more. Mika, 65, has a memorable ending in her filmography — that of zombie and the ghost train1991, when the protagonist gets lost in the streets of Istanbul, following the haunting ghost of a woman–, good movies (Arvottomat1982, red1985, Cha Cha Cha1989), a cinephile tribute for the exclusive consumption of cinephiles (Tigrero, a film that was never made1994), a good number of films not known around here and some failures, especially when he tried to set foot on the international market (among them LA Without a Map, Highway Society Y Honey Babyall from the late 1990s and early 2000s).

the original title, Mistari Cheng (“Master Cheng”) alludes to the condition of the protagonist. Owner of an upscale restaurant in Shanghai, Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) exercises his mastery in the kitchen. In the kitchen of Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko), a single, middle-aged woman who owns what might be called a “feed house” in a remote Finnish village. Without knowing a word of the language, widower Cheng (foreign status is perhaps the most marked constant in MK cinema) came to Pohjanjoki with his little son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan), looking for something or someone. Nobody understands him. Sausages with sauce and puree, plus the possible addition of a salad, is the only dish at the Sirkaa bar-restaurant, whose patrons seem to know no other food than that. Until Cheng arrives, with his woks and freshly caught perch soup, and turns the place upside down. Cheng will also, of course, revolutionize Sirkka’s heart. He cooks for her, she meets for him and Niu Niu, and he also has a free room in her house. The rest is to imagine, and that is the weakness of A love close to paradisewhich punctually complies with the steps of distance, approach, merger, distance and reunion.

The peculiarity that Mika brings in the first part -conventions end up prevailing in the long run- is that its characters are not tokens of the plot, nor the love story inserted into it by force. Mika takes his time to build one and the other (the film lasts 115 minutes, an unusual length for a romantic comedy), as if macerating them little by little. When they appear they are nobody: mere figures in an interior. Relationships make them become characters. Cheng’s relationship with clients, with the craft, which she clearly loves, and with meals, which she seasons with as much care as the filmmaker puts into his task. Sirkka’s relationship with the patrons, sullenly Finnish at first, later softened, more sensitive. More left aside (by Kaurismäki) is Niu Niu, who disappears in the course of the story.

The round trip is perhaps the theme of opus 31 (counting fiction films and documentaries) by the youngest of the Kaurismäki. Cheng’s culinary expertise allows Sirkka to expand his business, Sirkka helps him search for the mysterious with the weird name (a mere mcguffin to make the plot progress) and in turn sweetens his condition as a father incommunicado with his son. During that first part, the director’s gaze towards his characters is as transparent, as well-intentioned as his sad blue eyes, and the photography, which does not allow itself to be carried away by picturesqueness, is equally crystalline. The touch of eccentricity typical of the films of the genre is given by the veteran Käri Väänänen (the one with passing clouds), in a role that is not exactly likeable and despite that lovable, that of a homophobic garbage collector.

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