Educated Fleas Do It
Spring must be in the air, at least in the air around the local cinemas: the most unlikely people seem to be getting it on at the drop of a hat. For example, the title characters in Ali and Ava (NB: actual movie includes an ampersand), written and directed by Clio Barnard (I'm pretty sure I once knew someone who drove a second-hand Clio Barnard, though I may be misremembering again). This is a movie produced with the assistance of Screen Yorkshire, an organisation which has recently been involved in a number of productions with nary a whippet or a flat cap in sight (they got credits on Censor and The Duke, not to mention The Witcher). This one, however, is proudly and unmistakably set in present-day Bradford.
Bradford is famously multi-cultural, a fact which is at the heart of Barnard's story. We meet Ali, a landlord and part-time DJ, a bit of a cheeky chappie and – at first sight – a relentlessly perky and upbeat character in every sense of the word. Ali is played by Adeel Akhtar, a very able actor whose profile has been rising inexorably over the last few years – he played Kumail Nanjiani's brother in The Big Sick, was Inspector Lestrade in the baffling Enola Holmes, and I'm pretty sure he was in some commercials for a well-known supermarket chain as well. Also central to the story, as you might expect, is Ava, a widowed classroom assistant and matriarch of a sizeable brood of children and grandchildren. She is played by Claire Rushbrook, another capable performer – she was also in Enola Holmes, as well as appearing in Spice World and Secrets and Lies (just to prove that some things are currently inescapable, she also played a version of the supervillain Lady Beetle in a Marvel movie, though not so most people would notice).
Well, one of Ali's tenants is a refugee child being tutored by Ava, and they eventually bump into one another; he ends up giving her a lift home in the rain. One thing, as they say, leads to another. But naturally there are complications: Ali has a wife, whom he is separated from but still sharing a house with; their split is still a secret (the conservative nature of the Muslim community in Bradford makes this virtually obligatory). Ava is still feeling the effects of an abusive relationship in her past, which has also marked her children. Can it really work out between them?
I took my co-spousal unit to see Ava and Ali and we both enjoyed the film, although at the end her comment was that she had expected a bit more in the way of action. After a little further interrogation it transpired she had not been hankering for fist-fights and car-chases, but just more actual plot. It is true that not a great deal happens beyond people trying to get on with their lives, but then this is a film which tries to capture the small moments of beauty which punctuate the everyday.
I would even go so far as to say that this isn't really a romance per se, but more of a drama and character study which just happens to concern this rather atypical relationship. Slowly the film reveals that both characters have elements of their past to struggle with, and naturally their friends and families are a little surprised and not entirely supportive of their coming together.
The playing is excellent and the film looks beautiful; beneath its naturalism the script is (perhaps surprisingly) conventional, hitting all the beats you would expect it to. The result is a film with considerable warmth and humanity to it, though it doesn't attempt to conceal the harsher life either.
Conversely, gritty realism crawls into a hole and dies in Mauri Kaurismaki's Master Cheng (aka A Spice for Life), a Sino-Finnish foodie rom-com (yes, another contribution to that ubiquitous world cinema genre). This is a pre-pandemic film which has only now managed to scrape a minor UK release, although I think the big chains are missing a trick – much of it's in English, and I would imagine that it might do very well if marketed to the right kind of audience.
A passing coach deposits Shanghainese visitor Cheng (Chu Pak Hong) and his son Niu Niu (Lucas Hsuan) in the small village of Pohjanjoki in remote Finland: Cheng is looking for someone called Fongtron, whom none of the locals have heard of. Not knowing what else to do, Cheng and the lad become fixtures at the local restaurant, run by Sirkka (Anna-Maija Tuokko).
Mysterious Chinese wanderers who blow into town often turn out to have the most unlikely skills, at least in a lot of the movies I watch, and it proves to be the case here too. However, in Cheng's case his unexpected proficiency proves to be with a skillet – a coachload of Chinese tourists arrives and is somewhat appalled by the sausage and mash which is the only thing on the menu. Cheng springs into action and whips up lashings of chicken noodles, revealing he was once a top chef before various family tragedies sent him in search of Fongtron.
Soon even the locals are enjoying Cheng's sweet and sour reindeer recipe and he and Niu Niu are making friends with the Finns. But then you probably guessed that already: the entire plot is thoroughly predictable, to the point where I found myself getting a bit exasperated at the film's slightly discursive style and languid pace. It is as plain as plain can be that Cheng and Sirkka are going to end up getting it on, but the film really makes a meal (if you'll pardon the pun) of building up to this.
The movie is so bloody-mindedly intent on being charming and loveable it should actually be quite annoying and sickly. There's also the fact that the message of the film (which was majority-funded by Chinese money) seems to be that Chinese food is delicious and Finland is a great place for a holiday, a fairly cynical piece of cultural cross-promotion. But I have to confess that I did find it remarkably pleasant and watchable while it was on in front of me. The softest and least demanding of viewing: Master Cheng is the kind of thing that plays very well on Sunday night TV. It's utterly dispensable except as comfort viewing – but we all need a bit of extra comfort these days, I suppose.