Ask any New Zealand film critic where one can find the best free cinema in town and they’ll inevitably list Māori Television, which regularly screens varied, surprising titles from throughout cinema history. It’s wonderful to see a channel recognise the importance of showcasing distinctive cinema offerings for all New Zealanders – including those who can’t afford the increasingly restrictive prices of the big streamers – your Netflixes, your Amazon Primes, your Disney+. Since the lamentable demise of video stores, a huge number of New Zealanders almost exclusively now get their entertainment from these nouveau cable channels. During the lockdowns, I set about trying to discover as many places to find free-to-air movies as possible, and there is a surprising range, from libraries to Youtube to free-to-air streaming channels. TVNZ+, the new version of TVNZ OnDemand, has increasingly been entering the fray. With their new offshoot Filmstream, I was surprised to find a number of grabby, hugely underseen and underappreciated gems from international arthouse cinema of recent years. There was the gripping political thriller The Realm, or thorny erotic drama Instinct; Ladj Ly’s tense social drama Les Miserables or Border, Ali Abassi’s last film before his new project Holy Spider made waves at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
Good cinema is often hidden in plain sight, and easily accessible, beyond the usual streamers whose offerings regularly fall short. A new, free arthouse cinema platform, Filmstream (an offshoot of TVNZ+) includes a range of hidden gems from around the world – the kind of films worth stumbling upon.
Though I was tempted by a rewatch of Blue is the Warmest Colour, I ended up watching Master Cheng, a delightful trifle from Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki. Keen cinephiles know the Kaurismäkis – Mika and his brother Ali – as some of the most important Scandinavian filmmakers of the last several decades. Between them, the two have a formidable roster of great films: Le Havre, The Man Without a Past, Drifting Clouds, The Liar, LA Without a Map, and so on.
Otherwise known as The Spice of Life, Master Cheng follows a Chinese chef and widower (Chu Pak Hong, in an appealing turn) who travels with his son to a remote Finnish village to reconnect with a mysterious person he met years ago in Shanghai known only as ‘Fongtron’. Over the course of the film, Cheng’s remarkable cuisine starts to deeply impact the lives of the townsfolk around him. It’s a winning, if slightly predictable fish-out-of-water feature, with an appealingly kooky setting and a broad cast of oddballs that acquit themselves well – particularly Anna Maija-Tuokko as the flinty restaurant owner-turned-love-interest who offers Cheng and his son a place to stay. The food, meanwhile, is gorgeously lensed, capturing Cheng’s mouth-watering creations with finesse. It makes for a genial, pleasantly diverting experience under Kaurismäki’s steady hand, which ensures that the safer, more well-trodden material is handled with finesse and grace. It’s cinematic comfort food, with a warm, gently melancholic aura of smalltown acceptance that marks Master Cheng as the kind of film that will soothe a stressful day (or provide culinary inspiration). It also characterises Filmstream’s promising early foray into being a hub for foreign arthouse cinema for all to access and be enriched from.
Streaming now on Filmstream.
Movie title: Filmstream titles incl. Master Cheng (Kaurismaki, 2022)
Movie description: Good cinema is often hidden in plain sight, and easily accessible, beyond the usual streamers whose offerings regularly fall short. A new, free arthouse cinema platform, Filmstream (an offshoot of TVNZ+) includes a range of hidden gems from around the world - the kind of films worth stumbling upon.
Date published: September 8, 2022
Author: Hannu Oravisto
Director(s): Mika Kaurismäki
Actor(s): Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko
Genre: Drama, Romance