WTF ASIA 195: Fagara (2019)

Last week, I featured a movie about a travel agent grappling with the disappearance of her boyfriend, only to find that she has…multiple versions of herself. This week, I feature a movie about a travel agent grappling with the death of her father, only to find that she has…half-sisters.

Fagara (花椒之味) (2019) | Reel Thoughts

Available in AustraliaCanadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 118 minutes.

 

 

 

 

It is a Mid-Autumn evening in Hong Kong and the Fire Dragon Dance is on.

Erm…who is this guy? Why is he looking at me? Oh, he wants me to join in?

 

 

It is the middle of a gray day in Hong Kong, and Ha Acacia is bored at work. She calls up a Mr. Chan to inform him that the travel agency has put together a fancy plan for his business trip in Japan. She asks about the route his wife will take. Mr. Chan says rather brusquely that he will be going with his secretary and that his wife is to be told none of this. Acacia takes a beat, but tells him that he will need his secretary’s information to incorporate her into the plan separately from him.

Acacia gets inundated by phone calls from various companies, and she makes rather mean-spirited comments before hanging up. It is not until the guy from the hospital yells at her that she snaps out of it. Her father is there and she needs to go immediately.

After struggling to find a taxi to cross the harbor, she gets to the hospital. She finds one of her father’s employees, Radish, is sitting in the hallway crying. Her father, Ha Leung, is dead. He gives her a plastic bag that contains the things that he had on him when he died.

After getting a death certificate and a cremation form, Acacia goes to the hospital cafeteria. She puts…a lot…of chili sauce on her food, which gets the notice of the doctor sitting further down the table from where she sits down. The doctor, Ho-san, tells her that she is the second person he has met use that much, the other being, of course, Uncle Leung. Apparently, her father was admitted for a few days last year, talked about her, and complained about the lousy food here compared to the fagara hotpot that he makes at his restaurant.

Having not seen Leung for a while, the Ho-san asks Acacia how he is. She says that he just died. Ho-san takes a little bit to process it, and then apologizes. He asks whether she is okay. She says that she is fine and thanks him. Not too convincing, but one cannot really press someone further.

Radish lets Acacia inside her father’s family hotpot in Tai Hang. It is closed and will be until further notice. From the setup of the tables, it looks like it had been busy before he had to be rushed to the hospital. She looks around. She has memories of this place. Good memories? Well, memories.

Radish gives Acacia a phone that her father wanted her to have. He cleans up the mess on the floor as and tells her that they need to pay suppliers. He knows only how to place simple orders, so he will need her help placing the orders. As he is talking, Acacia notices some text messages meant for her father on the phone. One is from someone named Cherry, who says that it is freezing in Chongqing, a municipality in the Mainland. Another is from someone named Branch, who asks if he is going to come to Taiwan to watch her compete. They both refer to him as Dad. There are a bunch of conversations between her father and these two other people. Who are they?

Acacia remembers a moment from her childhood. She runs up to her mother and asks where father is. Her mother takes a pill and tells her that he is in Taiwan. Seeing that Acacia is about to cry, she says that father does not love them anymore. She hugs her daughter and they both tear up.  Acacia remembers her mother getting sick and rejecting her father’s attempts to give her medicine, telling him to go back to that woman in Taiwan.

Acacia texts the funeral information to the two people on her father’s phone.

 

 

 

It is the funeral. There are signs from Acacia, Branch, and Cherry. The funeral parlor agent is confused. Mr. Ha had two other daughters? Are they coming? Do they need mourning clothes? He tells Acacia that he can arrange for something last minute if she pays a little extra. For the father’s sake. Acacia says that they will work it out when the women arrive.

A woman walks in wearing…all-black, which is I guess the color of mourning, though not really in this case. Acacia stares at the woman as she puts her name in the ledger. Is this…her sister?

The woman goes into the room and, though she does not get mourning clothes, she does do the ritual. And, though strangers, she and Acacia bow to each other.

As another part of the ceremony is underway, another woman arrives. She is also dressed in black, though…a bit different. And, unlike the near-silence of the second woman, she is talking to someone on her phone, quite angrily.

Apparently, the person on the other end did not want her to come to Hong Kong. This woman stops talking when she sees all of the fire, and tries to stay out of the way. She sits next to the second sister.

Oh, look at that.

Some time later, Ho-san comes. He does the bowing ritual and sits next to her. He sheepishly apologizes for being late, but then says that…erm…this is the wrong type of ceremony for her father’s beliefs. Oops. Apparently, a few others knew and simply did not say; now it is really too late. Ho-san tries to assure her that it is the thought that counts; her father would not mind.

Eventually, the two other sisters agree to go sit next to Acacia. The second one turns to Acacia and says that she does not believe that their father would mind? Mind what? That the ceremony was wrong? Or that the three of them have met? Either way, they all go to see the body. The two sisters cry, while Acacia…doesn’t. She kind of looks at both of them. Did they have a relationship with her father that she didn’t? She cannot even cry when the burn the offerings to him, though her calls to him are no less sincere.

The three go to their father’s apartment, the apartment where she had also lived before she moved out. Acacia says that they can take a shower. There is a bit of a back and forth between her and the second sister, Branch, over who deserves the shower more, so the third sister, Cherry, decides to go shower. As she showers, the other two arrange a meal for their father and take a picture to send to the agent just for confirmation that it is done properly. Cherry returns from the shower and takes a bite, angering Acacia and Branch. She is…sort of apologetic…and that is that.

Branch takes a shower and suddenly the water goes cold. Her screams bring Acacia and Cherry barging in. Cherry laughs until she realizes that her long shower may have been the cause. Acacia gives Branch a towel and Cherry…tries to peek? Branch scolds her, which just makes her laugh again. Acacia as well.

Later on, the three are talking about their father. Branch says that their father came to her college graduation, and probably had begged her mother to let him attend, if only from afar. And it was after that that Branch got to know him. Cherry says that her mother took her to Canada and told the people there that she was her niece. No one came to her graduation; apparently their father was too busy at the shop.

Cherry puts in a DVD of…something, into the DVD player. Oh, it’s women’s billiards. Acacia wonders why their father would be into this. Cherry thinks that it is due to the babes and how the camera leers at them. Then Branch shows up on screen, wearing an outfit different from the other woman. Branch tries to get Cherry to turn it off, but Cherry tosses the remote to Acacia. Acacia notes that they gave her the wrong name. Branch says that no one in Taiwan would name a child the name that she has, so she changed it.

Acacia asks Branch if she is a professional athlete, but a still embarrassed Branch says that most people consider it more entertainment than sport. People did say that their father watched it for the babes. Cherry insists that she was kidding when she said that; their father was not that kind of guy. The three fall asleep on the sofa.

The next day, Acacia takes Branch and Cherry to the restaurant. They go into the kitchen and the employee asks what they want. Branch is not picky, Cherry asks for their father’s signature fagara hotpot. The employee…who is named Sweet Potato (or Francis, but I am calling him Sweet Potato), says that it is a lot of work, and says the various ingredients. I guess that the sisters are to make it themselves. Branch looks at two jars of peppers and asks what the difference is. Sweet Potato simply says that one is red and one is green, but Acacia provides more details. Sweet Potato leaves them to it. Yeah, he just leaves.

The sisters start preparing the ingredients. Apparently, it has been a while since any of them have had hotpot. Cherry says that the last time she had it was at this restaurant, but she was never in the kitchen. Acacia is surprised to find out that Cherry has been here before.

Storytime. Acacia says that their father used to be a Chinese chef, but suddenly quit and started a business in Taiwan. He returned when her mother got sick, and that is when he tried to open the hotpot shop. Branch says that her mother hates hotpot, and wonders if that could be because of him. Acacia doesn’t know, as he never talked about his time in Taiwan.

Branch’s mother said that they were each other’s first love. That they first met when he followed his father and the rest of the family to Taiwan. When his father died and his father’s wives fought over the estate, he returned to Hong Kong alone. During this time, he married Acacia’s mother and fathered Acacia. For whatever reason, he returned to Taiwan. And then Branch was born. Cherry asks who “the other woman” was in this context. Branch says that it does not matter who was first, but who he ended up with. Acacia says that, regardless of his decisions, he hurt all of them. Cherry disagrees; she wasn’t hurt as she was never anyone’s choice. Then she has them pose for selfies.  

Time to eat the hotpot. Acacia says that this may be the last time…even though it is also Branch’s first time. The others are surprised that Acacia is not taking over, but she says that she cannot afford the rent and knows nothing about hotpot. Cherry says that it would be a shame, given all the work that they father put into this place, but Acacia says that that is his own fault.

The three go back to the apartment so that Branch and Cherry can pack up. Cherry suggests that they start a group chat. Then suddenly, Acacia notices a cockroach. The three of them freak out hard. Acacia tries to kill it, but Cherry yells out that it might be the spirit their father, returned as an insect. In any case, the cockroach flies out the window and the three calm down. Well, that was unexpected.

Acacia drops off Branch and Cherry at the airport. Are they leaving at the around same time? That is convenient.

They all embrace and Acacia goes back to the car where…is that Andy Lau? Jesus Christ! How many movies have he and Sammi Cheng been in together?  Now he is playing…the boyfriend whom we have not seen until 32 minutes into the movie. Or ex-boyfriend? And, as we learn later, he was also sort of her landlord…sort of…also, his name is Tin-yan.

Aaaaanyways, Tin-yan drives Acacia to somewhere to eat. He apologizes to Acacia for not being able to come back in time for the funeral. He seems happy that she was able to get along with her half-sisters, despite not having known about them. Oh, so HE knew about them? Apparently, her father had told him, but not her. Why didn’t he let them meet when he was alive? He never said anything about them or his sickness. Tin-yan says that she never gave saw her father, so he never had the opportunity. Tin-yan, on the other hand, saw him several times while in Tai Hang. Tin-yan also says that men won’t bring up a subject if not asked. So, this is Acacia’s fault for asking questions that she had no reason to ask? She stops talking and turns away from him.

Oh…is this a flashback? Are they going to use one of the eight other films where these two actors played a couple? No? Well, opportunity lost. Well, the two of them are driving…are they getting married? Tin-yan asks what they should eat tonight. Acacia says maybe Japanese. Tin-yan says that he can do that. But Acacia asks if he wants it. Not particularly, but he can go with her. This annoys Acacia, who conflates his attitude to their upcoming marriage. When he snorts at that without answering, she asks him directly if he actually wants to get married. He says that he can, which is not the answer that she wanted to hear. End of flashback.

The two are still in the car when Tin-yan admits that he keeps things from her because he fears that she will get the wrong idea. Her father was probably the same, so she should not agonize over it, but maybe ask herself why he chose not to tell her.

Okay, another flashback to…erm… Ho-san encountering Acacia’s father for the first time. He catches Leung smoking on hospital property. Leung apologizes and puts the cigarette away, but Ho-san guides him quite a ways away through the rain to a small underpass. And then they both smoke. Ho-san asks Leung why none of his family accompanied him to the hospital. Leung says that he did not want to bother his busy daughter for just a checkup. He plays down what he is in for, but it is quite a lot, and Ho-san says as much.

Ho-san says that he is an anesthetist, which is not considered a doctor in Hong Kong. Even Leung was a bit dismissive at first and sheepishly apologizes. Ho-san says that he is considering leaving for Syria, where his skills might truly be needed. He is recently divorced, and there is no other family tying him to Hong Kong. Leung says that he should go; that if he really wants to do something, then he should stop making excuses to avoid doing it and instead just do it.

Finally, it is revealed that this is a story that Ho-san is relating to Acacia while they stand in the underpass. She says that Ho-san should not trust her father, as he did not practice what he preached. Ho-san meekly says that everyone has his reasons. So what reason did he have for not telling her that he was sick? Ho-san says the same thing that Tin-yan did; that she was too busy. Acacia retorts that she would have taken him to the doctor if he had told her. But he says that sickness is harder to notice as people get older. Everything just seems like a byproduct of being old. Hey, 66 is not THAT old, but okay fine.

The new buyer arrives at the restaurant. He is Mr. Chan…the one who is cheating on his wife at the start of the movie or a different Mr. Chan? Anyways, he wants to do so major renovations and switch up the menu. But he wants to keep the logo. Acacia, already anxious about the changes that Mr. Chan wants, tells the agent that this is not what they had discussed, that they have to change the name if they are going to upend the restaurant. Meanwhile, Radish and Sweet Potato claim that Mr. Chan knows nothing about cooking, let alone hotpot; that his vision will ruin the restaurant’s reputation. The agent argues that this is preferrable to closing the shop. If she keeps the shop, then she will have to pay the landlord and continue to pay the workers, whom he accidentally calls losers. On the other hand, he can get her a good deal on the logo. The employees beg her not to sell, that Leung never cared if they made a profit as long as they worked hard.

Mr. Chan asks for a price. Acacia replies that she has decided to take over. Well, that’s that; Mr. Chan and the agent leave for another restaurant. The employees get back to work.

So…now what?

 

 

 

 

 

 

This movie is an adaptation of the book My Love is So Spicy by Hong Kong author Amy Cheung. Or is it My So-Called Spicy Love? There are a bunch of rough translations of the title. Anyways, there are a bunch of changes, of course, including one maaaaajor thing that I feel kind of glad that the movie did away with.

It is interesting that the three sisters are from different Chinese…areas: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland. I cannot say whether there is supposed to be some metaphorical commentary about the differences between the places or the connection between them. I will just say that, while this movie was released during the Hong Kong Protests of 2019-2020, the original book was published in 2010, so the context was different back then. There are a few details pointing out the differences between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the Mainland, but I probably missed most of them; I did not even notice many linguistic mixups. Perhaps I am just unobservant.

 

In any case, this is more of a personal story, focusing on the individual sisters, how they behave, feel, and interact. They are quite different in behavior and experience, yet they manage to get along fairly well fairly quickly and they seem get each other better than anyone else in their lives. Is the smoothing out of cultural and political differences itself a statement? Especially in 2019? I don’t know. Or…maybe it says that those differences need not be an impediment for coming together.

The movie is primarily focused on Acacia and her conflicted feelings towards her father. We do get to see a bit of how the other sisters live, though. Branch’s mother remarried and had two other children. Branch is friendly enough with her half-siblings, who consider her part of the family. Branch’s relationship with her mother, however, is cold and distant. And Branch resents her still trying to intrude into her life with her passive-aggressive judgments, pointing out that it was SHE who raised her, not her father. As a professional billiards player, Branch does have quite a few fans, including one who follows her to her home. It is unclear whether this person is simply a big fan, a stalker, or whether she and Branch had more history. Her somewhat masculine way of dressing and carrying herself is lightly commented on, but the movie does not really go far into that.

Meanwhile, Cherry works as a fashion blogger…and streamer? Well, she makes enough money to take care of herself and her grandmother. Her grandmother, however, accuses Cherry of making herself look weird to scare away suitors. Having been treated as a mere visitor by her father and an accessory to be kept or handed off by her mother, she clings to her grandmother as her last vestige of family and feels like the attempts to marry her off is just another means of getting rid of her. Now, sure, Cherry may be in her mid-twenties (or mid-thirties if she is the same age that the actor was), but the pain of her childhood still stings every time.

The story seems to be about three people trying to form a family out of the pieces of fractured families, and maybe learning to repair what had been broken. At the center of this is their father. It is interesting to note that Acacia, who was closest to Leung geographically during his later years, seemed to be the most distant from him. It seems to be incredibly easy to just up and leave from the Mainland or Taiwan for Hong Kong at a moment’s notice. But crossing the harbor? Travel agent Acacia is just too busy to do that…and when she does, her father is too busy to be with her. Acacia grew up close to her mother and learned to resent her father for what he did to both of them. On the other hand, Branch was able to reconcile with him as an adult, which created a wedge between her and her mother. Meanwhile, Cherry felt betrayed and abandoned by her mother, so her father seemed like an acceptable alternative. So, it sort of makes sense why Branch and Cherry cried at the funeral, while Acacia could not. Gradually, she learns of the good things that he had done for others, so why not her? Why not her mother?

Speaking of doing good things for others, I also find it to be a little interesting that the storyline of the doctor involves him thinking of going to Syria because of the civil war, since the war broke out in earnest around a year after the publication of the book. In the book, his counterpart went to Malawi to look after children who were orphaned due to AIDS. I don’t know if there is something to be said about this change or the need to background it. *Shrugs*

The movie is about trying to build something upon loss, of coming to terms with one’s family, of confronting issues and, maybe, finding a way towards understanding and even reconciliation. And communication. Even if it is too late for the sisters to do so with their father, maybe there is another way to try. The ending of this film may be a little too…deceptively tidy, maybe…but it still works for the most part. And, yeah, the movie is good.

 

 

 

 

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Wikipedia

Available in Canadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.

 

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Wikipedia

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