Glasgow Film Festival reviews: Master Cheng | Blanco en Blanco | I Want My MTV

IF GLITZY film festivals often become bunfights to see the latest hyped-to-hell arthouse wonder, festivals such as Glasgow sometimes provide the space to discover the gems that might otherwise fall through the cracks. Master Cheng (****) is one such film. Debuting at GFF this weekend, the latest from veteran Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki is the sort of film that charms in quiet, unassuming ways.

It revolves around a Chinese chef, the titular Cheng, and his young son Nunjo (Pak Hon Chu and Lucas Hsuan) as they arrive in a remote Finnish fishing village from Shanghai in search of a local man no one in town seems to know. Able to speak some English, Cheng is befriended by diner owner Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokka), whose kindness he insists on repaying by cooking her sceptical-at-first-customers his signature dishes. Droll culture-clashing comedy duly ensues as the restorative power of his Asian riffs on fish soup and reindeer stew start working their magic on his hosts and the town and its people start working its magic on him. None of which is especially radical, but that’s the point. Kaurismäki’s characters may lack the poker-faced inscrutability found in the films of his more famous younger brother, Aki Kaurismäki, but like a gentler spin on the latter’s similarly themed The Other Side of Hope, Master Cheng is a comforting tribute to the value of opening yourself up to the unfamiliar.

There’s nothing remotely comforting about Blanco en Blanco (****), an artistically challenging period drama about the horrors of colonialism seen through the prism of a photographer (Alfredo Castro) whose complicity in its genocidal consequences gives the film a chilling distancing effect. Set in Tierra del Fuego at the dawn of the 20th century, the film, directed with formal rigour by up-and-coming Spanish-Chilean filmmaker Théo Court, keeps bloodshed largely offscreen, concentrating at first on his protagonist’s growing obsession with a teenage bride-to-be (Esther Vega) whose marriage to an all powerful landowner he’s been hired to document. But the realities of his never-seen boss’s determination to wipe out the island’s indigenous population gradually starts seeping into the frame as he’s put to work documenting a version of history that will valorise this so-called “civilising” process. What follows is not some bogus redemption story, but a devastating critique of the role image-making has played in the eradication from history of entire cultures.

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There’s a good documentary to be made about the cultural impact of MTV. Sadly I Want My MTV (**) isn’t it. More of a nostalgic primer for those who’ve grown up with instant access music on YouTube, it’s a standard mix of talking-head interviews and archival clips running through the station’s troubled launch, its rapid ascendency and its swift descent into reality TV. True, it’s always good to see the David Bowie interview in which he holds the station to account for its racist playlists, but mostly this is the kind of shallow music doc that would once have featured on the station in its heyday. ALISTAIR HARKNESS

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