Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Midi Z, 2019)

Nina Wu poster 1“They’re not just destroying my body but my soul” complains an exploited woman in a film within a film, “I’ll do something you’ll all regret” she adds, only the actress never will. Penned by leading actress Wu Ke-xi, Nina Wu (灼人秘密, Zhuó Rén Mì) provides a timely exploration of the gradual erasure of the self the pursuit of a dream can entail in a fiercely patriarchal, intensely conservative culture. Arriving in the wake of the #metoo scandal the film goes in hard for industry exploitation but never tries to pretend that these are issues relating to the film industry alone or deny the various ways it informs and is informed by prevailing social conservatism.

Originally from the country, the titular Nina Wu (Wu Ke-xi) has been in Taipei for eight years trying to make it as an actress but is still awaiting that big break. Aside from some small bit parts and commercial jobs, she supports herself by working in restaurants with a side career as a live-streaming webcam star. Then, just as she’s starting to think it’s too late, a call comes through – she’s in the running for the lead in a high profile period spy thriller. The only snag is that the part requires full frontal nudity and explicit sex scenes.

Nina is understandably conflicted. Aside from the potential discomfort, taking a part in the kind of film this could turn out to be is a huge gamble that could either make or break her career (just look at what happened to Tang Wei after Lust Caution, itself a period thriller about a female assassin who falls for her target). Nina’s unsympathetic agent skirts around the fact this might be her last chance while promising to respect her decision, implying it’s this or nothing. Of course, neither he nor the sleazy director inviting parades of identically dressed hopefuls up to his hotel room where he forces them to engage in dubious acts of degradation for his own enjoyment will admit that the reason they want a “fresh face” isn’t for any artistic motivation but that no well established actress with a proper agent would ever take a role like this (and even if she did, she couldn’t be pushed around in the same way).

Convincing herself to do whatever it takes, Nina takes the part but goes on to suffer at the hands of a controlling and tyrannical director who psychologically tortures and physically abuses her supposedly in order to get the performance he wants rather than the one she chooses to give him. A repeated motif sees hands continually around Nina’s throat as if she were being permanently strangled, unable to speak or express herself, permitted breath only when compliant with the desires of men.

Subsuming herself into the part, Nina avoids having to think about the various ways her offscreen life is also a performance or of her own complicity in the erosion of her emotional authenticity. A visit home reveals a difficult family environment with a father (Cheng Ping-chun) losing out in the precarious modern economy, while she, now the “famous actress”, wonders if she was happier as an am dram bit player staging inspirational plays for children. The secret she seems so desperate to conceal seems to be her same sex love, sacrificed for a career in Taipei and now perhaps unsalvageable. Her lover has moved on, preparing to marry a man and embark on a socially conventional life. If she too has made her peace with sacrificing a part of her true self, she does at least seem superficially “happy” in contrast to Nina’s gradually fracturing psyche.

Meanwhile, Nina becomes paranoid that a mysterious woman is stalking her. Apparently another hopeful also driven mad by the demands of an exploitative industry, the woman is convinced Nina has taken what was rightfully hers and done so by selling her body for career advancement. Yet as time goes on we begin to wonder if the film ever happened at all or is only a part of Nina’s fabricated delusion sparked Marienbad-style by the single traumatic event on which the film ends, filled as it is with a lingering sense of tragic defeat. Nina Wu never takes her longed for revenge, even if she (perhaps) gains it in a kind of success, but silently endures as the misuse of her body begins to destroy her soul and leaves her nothing more than an empty vessel on which the desires of others are projected.


Nina Wu was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Girl Missing (よこがお, Koji Fukada, 2019)

A Girl Missing poster 1In Harmonium, Koji Fukada explored the death of the family unit as a harried father found the foundations of his home eroded by a mysterious “stranger” with whom he shared an unspoken connection. A Girl Missing (よこがお Yokogao) pushes a little deeper in demonstrating how profoundly the foundations of a life can be shaken by frustrated connections, misunderstandings, and unspeakable desire. Probing deeper still, it wants to ask us on what foundations we’ve chosen to build our selfhoods, why it is that we don’t know ourselves without those tiny markers that tell us where we stand, and if it is really possible to rediscover a sense of self if we somehow go missing from our own lives.

Beginning in the mysterious second timeline, Fukada opens with the heroine changing her identity through the time-honoured fashion of a haircut. Calling herself Risa, she brushes off the hairdresser’s suggestion that they’ve met before, but she hasn’t chosen this salon because of its reputation or proximity to her home. Flashing back some months, we see the same woman looking a little softer and apparently working as a homecare nurse known as Ichiko (Mariko Tsutsui) to an elderly woman dying of stomach cancer. Ichiko’s colleagues worry that she’s becoming too emotionally involved with the Oishi household, helping the two daughters – uni student Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and high schooler Saki (Miyu Ogawa), study in cafes in her off hours, but she enjoys playing mother and does after all like to help. Meanwhile, she’s also happily engaged to a doctor (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) with a young son and looking forward to starting a brand-new family life of her own.

All that is derailed, however, when Saki goes missing in a suspected abduction on her way home from cram school. Thankfully, she’s found alive, unhurt, and apparently relatively well adjusted a few days later and anyone would assume the drama to be over, only it turns out that the suspect is Ichiko’s own nephew whom she briefly introduced to Saki at a cafe on the night in question. Feeling tremendously guilty and confused though she herself had nothing to do with the incident, Ichiko feels she must confess and make a formal apology to the Oishis but Motoko stops her fearing that the family will fire Ichiko and she’ll never see her again. Ichiko decides to trust Motoko and keep quiet, but it will prove to be a bad decision not least because it is in such sharp contrast to her otherwise straightforward and honest character.

The film’s Japanese title, “Yokogao” or “profile” reminds us that it is not possible to see the entirety of any one thing, only a single facet and more often that not the facet that it particularly wants you to see. Ichiko is guileless, innocent, and naive in her innate kindness. She doesn’t see how her relationship with the Oishi girls could eventually become problematic because, as a nurse, she’s used to doing what needs to be done when it needs doing. What we see of her is a woman about to marry “late” by the standards of her society into a readymade family, an intensely maternal figure looking for people who need mothering. Meanwhile, Saki’s disappearance exposes cracks in the Oishi household, Motoko’s grumpy response of “would you rather it was me?’ to her mother’s wails of “why her?” beginning to explain some of her seeming disaffection with her family.

Yet as much as there may be a maternal component in her desperation to keep Ichiko in her life, we can infer from all her plaintive looks that there is another kind of desire in play, one which she seems to regard as unspeakable. Ichiko, oblivious, does not quite realise the depth to which her accidental rejections wound the troubled young woman but equally could not anticipate the casual cruelty of her petty revenge. Upset that Ichiko is not catching her drift, Motoko leaks her connection to the case to the papers, and then tells them a secret shared in confidence to pour salt on the wound. Instantly regretful and caught in the white heat of passion, Motoko fails to realise the extent to which her desire to return the hurt done to her will only wound her more in ensuring Ichiko disappears from her life for good.

Ichiko then does something much the same, reinventing herself as “Risa” she lives in an empty apartment overlooking Motoko’s with the sole aim of taking revenge against the woman who pretended to be her friend and then betrayed her. But Ichiko does not understand why Motoko did what she did, and so her own revenge is also a misplaced act of self harm which causes her to absent herself from herself, assuming another identity better disposed to cruelty but finding it an awkward fit.

Fukada places emotional repression at the heart of all. Ichiko, despite her kindness, keeps others at a distance without entering into true intimacy with anyone, while Motoko apparently struggles to articulate perhaps even to herself the truth of her own feelings, childishly hitting back when slighted and unable to bear the possibility that she is in love with someone who cannot return her feelings. Forever at odds, they see each other only in profile. The desire for revenge destroys them both, but despite the pain and inescapability of regret, they have to find new ways of going on, making little nicks on their identities to help them remember who they really are. A melancholy tale of frustrated desires, A Girl Missing flirts with constructed identities polluted by social toxicity but leaves its heroines on (slightly) firmer ground in having at least taken what control they can over the forces which destabilise them.


A Girl Missing was screened as part of the 2019 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Repossession (Goh Ming-siu & Scott Chong Hillyard, 2019)

Reposession poster“I bet he doesn’t even know he’s in a cage” the “hero” of Repossession is told on asking his best friend if he thinks a hamster they’re looking at is happy on his little wheel. Like the rest of us, he’s ensnared by a cage called capitalism, but also by series of smaller cages inside it which range from toxic masculinity and persistent social conservatism, to the supernatural and the ghosts of past trauma. The biggest demon of them all, however, is pride, and as is so often the case, it’s those around him who will eventually pay the price.

50-something Jim Tan (Gerald Chew) is a success. He’s got a high ranking salaryman job which evidently pays enough for a multi floor apartment with its own private pool in one of Singapore’s most exclusive housing complexes, as well as a six figure luxury car. Given his relative seniority, it therefore seems slightly absurd that he’s pulled aside one day by a younger man from HR who tells him that he’s been identified as one of several employees to have underperformed in the previous year and is being a given a choice – accept a termination or agree to resign. Jim is upset. He insists on seeing someone higher up but all to no avail and is eventually fired after making a scene in an admin assistant’s office.

Jim tries to tell his wife, Linda (Amy Cheng), he’s lost his job, but loses the stomach for it when she starts telling him that their daughter’s (Rachel Wan) uni fees are going up and they’ve been invited to a swanky wedding at which they’ll be expected to contribute a hefty gift. Confident he can get another job despite the fact he’s over 50 and will be applying as someone fired from his last position, Jim becomes one of the many salarymen ghosts haunting the local parks, leaving for work as normal in the morning but with nowhere to go. All around him he starts hearing voices shaming him for being one of those men, a failure, someone who couldn’t provide for his family, a loser without a job too deluded to realise that men over 50 don’t get hired in Singapore’s competitive job market – something rammed home to him when he finds himself sitting on sofas next to fresh-faced graduates interviewing for entry level positions at a fraction of his previous salary.

Jim’s friend tells him that perhaps this is for the best, that perhaps the universe is telling him it’s time to take a break and play some golf. He asks him what the point of all this ceaseless toil really is, to which Jim poignantly answers that he did it for his family but the claim is exposed as somewhat hollow when he starts to hide the unpaid bills right next to his world’s best dad mug. Jim inhabits a conservative world in which men provide and women stay home. It’s important to him that he’s built a comfortable life for his wife and daughter in the status conscious society, but he’s entirely blind that in doing so he’s fenced them inside a cage of their own. Jim’s wife Linda gave up her job and started a charitable organisation, doing good deeds looking after vulnerable people and busying herself with philanthropy. Finally learning about their money troubles, she quite reasonably decides it’s time to get a paying job again but her determination to help save their family only further wounds Jim’s fragile sense of male pride as man who can no longer support his wife and daughter even as he “degrades” himself using his flashy car to pick up fares as an Uber driver.

Jim is a man haunted by a sense of failure stemming back to a traumatic incident in which he failed to protect his younger sister whose ongoing medical bills are another worry on top of his domestic responsibilities. He sees himself, rightly or wrongly, as pursued by a soul sucking monster which is why everyone is always telling him he looks “drained”, neatly explaining his recent spell of bad luck. The real “monster”, however is the one inside – latent male violence born of an inferiority complex and resentment towards a high pressure society in which economic success and social status are the only things that count. Jim struggles to “repossess” himself, while watching his demons try to repossess the people he loves, but never realises quality of the fear that he’s fighting. “What makes you think you’ve hit rock bottom?” a passenger ominously asks him. When you’re sitting this far from the bars you hardly notice the cage at all.


Repossession was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English, no subtitles)

Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า, Kongdej Jaturanrasmee, 2019)

Where We Belong poster 1“I don’t understand, is life supposed to be this sad?” asks a dejected teen at the centre of Kongdej Jaturanrasmee’s Where We Belong (ที่ตรงนั้น มีฉันหรือเปล่า). Life is indeed sad, and the lesson she’s still too young to learn is that sometimes people don’t come back, things don’t get finished, and you just have to live with all your regrets while trying (but mostly failing) to do better next time. Starring members of Thailand’s BNK48 (the Thai offshoot of Japan’s AKB48 and the recent subject of a documentary by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit), Where We Belong is part coming-of-age tale and part zeitgeisty take on contemporary Thai youth as it finds itself increasingly disconnected from the social conservatism of its parents’ generation but floundering when asked to find a new direction in which to strike out.

Highschooler Sue (Jennis Oprasert) is a case in point. Unbeknownst to her conservative father (Prawit Boonprakong), she’s applied for a scholarship to study abroad in Finland. Talented in English, she’s not much idea of what she wants to do with her life but knows that she has to get out of her small-town existence and away from the family noodle shop she feels is tying her to a future not of her choosing. Her best friend, Belle (Praewa Suthamphong), meanwhile is resolved to stay at home but doesn’t have much direction either save her attachment to her elderly grandmother (Saheoiyn Aophachat). Belle’s mother left the family a long time ago and lives a vacuous consumerist life in Bangkok, something which Belle is also keen to reject.

Meeting up with a friend at a local internet cafe, Belle is unsurprised to find it so full because nobody wants to go home to their parents right now owing to the intense pressure on them to succeed. That pressure is, however, slightly at odds with their traditional expectations for their children. No one expects much of young girls like Sue and Belle, even if they superficially want them to do well in their exams. Sue’s mother passed away some years ago, and her distant father is dead set against the idea of her travelling abroad, terrified that once she’s seen the world she won’t look back. Everyone expects her to take over the noodle shop, insisting that it’s an important part of the local culture and can’t simply be another sacrifice to progress like so many tiny eateries and family businesses abandoned by youngsters looking for a brighter future somewhere else.

Trying to defend her friend, Belle tells the customers in Sue’s restaurant that they can keep their “stupid heritage” to themselves, even while planning to stay home and be the good daughter. Unfortunately her words backfire, further placing her at odds with the conflicted Sue who is still trying to process the implications of her transnational move. While she remains in a kind of denial, it’s Belle who’s trying to sort everything out for her – returning old comic books to the library, getting their old band back together, and even trying to help her patch things up with a friend she’s fallen out with even though Belle herself is a little jealous of the close relationship they once had. She does these things because, as she hints to their friend at the library, she’s afraid Sue won’t come back and knows on some level that their present relationship, whatever happens after, is going to change even it doesn’t exactly end.

Belle’s grandmother has a strange habit of staring out the window, waiting for a boy who said he’d meet her the next day decades earlier but never came back. Belle doesn’t want to be her flighty mother living a superficial life in the city, but Sue doesn’t want to end up like grandma waiting around for something that’s never going to happen. At her interview, she’s honest in her replies, admitting that she currently has no dream other than getting out of Thailand, but cleverly adding that by going to Finland where they have the world’s best education she hopes to figure out what her life’s dream might be.

What the two girls discover is that life is a series of goodbyes. They’re on different paths, and that’s sad, but it’s just the way things are. Before she goes, Sue tries to put her affairs in order with varying degrees of success – trying to come to terms with her mother’s death, telling a boy she likes about how she really feels (but failing to take things further), and patching up old friendships while also accepting that sometimes they just end with no real resolution only a sense of regret. Eventually they figure out where they belong. Sue leaves, and Belle is alone surrounded by familiar absences, but life goes on, and it’s sad, but that’s how we live.


Where We Belong was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Red Phallus (Tashi Gyeltshen, 2018)

Red Phallus poster“I doubt anyone can get out of this paradise” laments an angry man at the centre of Tashi Gyeltshen’s debut feature The Red Phallus. Far from the happiest kingdom, the Bhutan of the Red Phallus is an oppressive place where misogyny and classism rule. Tyrannised by tradition and a conservative culture, the heroine finds herself trapped in an impossible situation, by turns mocked and humiliated because of her father’s “embarrassing” profession, and left with no-one to turn to when misused by the men all around her.

16-year-old Sangay (Tshering Euden) has trouble getting up for school. Unbeknownst to her father (Dorji Gyeltshen), the reason is not so much teenage fatigue and latent rebelliousness, but that the other children are less than kind to her because of his unusual profession – he carves wooden phalluses for a living and puts on a creepy red atsura clown outfit to participate in local festivals. At her age, Sangay should be in year X, but she’s only in year VII because she misses so much school and if she misses much more she’ll be given the rather ironic punishment of suspension. That’s not the only reason she’s in trouble though. The headmaster has also been told she’s been seen going about with Passa (Singye), a married man with two children who’s much older than her, but that’s not the problem. The problem is Passa comes from a family of butchers, which is why it’s so unseemly.

Weirdly, no one seems to be very concerned that a married man of around 30 is hanging round with a 16-year-old girl. When we first meet Passa without knowing his age or background he seems OK, possibly Sangay’s only friend, but he quickly turns nasty when she’s less than keen to take him up on his offer of running away together to the city. She tells him that she’s too young, “just a girl”, and isn’t sure that’s a decision she’s in a position to make. He begins to push her, criticising her for always saying she’s too young or not strong enough. Passa asks her when she’s going to make her own decisions, but Sangay is too clever for him. She’s well aware that by “your own decisions” he only ever means agreeing with him. She’s just made her own decision now when she told him she didn’t want to go, but he doesn’t like it so he tries to browbeat her by undermining her sense of confidence by implying that she’s too stupid to decide for herself while also lacking the courage of her convictions.

Why she’s hanging round with Passa in the first place remains a mystery save a later reference to a traumatic incident he tries to blackmail her with. What’s clear is that she doesn’t see much of a way out for herself through education and has become too afraid or embarrassed to attend school because her father’s profession. Sangay’s dad is largely a background presence in her life, yelling at her to get out of bed or barking orders from his studio. He doesn’t like it when she takes too long coming home after school, but sends her straight back out again on errands delivering phalluses to customers when he’s too busy to go himself. Sangay is not a fan of the phalluses, and like most of the other children, seems to find them very embarrassing, virtually throwing them at the son of her customer who giggles on seeing her approach with her arms full of oversize wooden fertility ornaments.

Apparently Sangay’s dad is one of the best atsuras in the country, though for reasons perhaps connected to the aforementioned traumatic incident, he’s thinking of retiring. In any case, he’s not much of a protective talisman for his daughter, meekly bowing his head and remaining silent when called in by the headmaster, and later spectacularly failing when he tries to have a word with Passa to explain how deeply inappropriate it is for him to be sniffing round his teenage daughter who is still after all a school girl.

It’s no wonder Passa would like to leave the “paradise” of their small rural community considering he’s the lowest of the low solely because his father was a butcher. Sangay’s headmaster angrily barks at her about a lack of ambition, threatening her that she might end up a butcher’s wife as if that were the worst possible outcome. Even so, Passa – the lowliest of all the men, still thinks he has a natural right to boss and abuse Sangay, emphasising his own masculinity and the lack of it in Sangay’s meek father whose ironic profession it is to carve giant phalluses that are supposed to ward off danger when “phalluses” seem to present nothing but danger and disappointment to young Sangay. When smashing crockery to ease her frustration is no longer enough, Sangay’s rage boils over into something violent and self destructive, her silence giving way to a single scream of infinite impossibility.


The Red Phallus was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Balloon (气球 / དབུགས་ལྒང་, Pema Tseden, 2019)

Balloon poster“The world has changed but you’re still so conservative”, a bemused doctor exclaims on learning that a female patient would rather wait around for a woman doctor than disclose a “woman’s problem” to a man. Set in ’80s Tibet, Pema Tseden’s seventh feature, Balloon (气球, Qìqiú / དབུགས་ལྒང་), finds itself at the intersection of multiple worlds and changing times as a small family is quietly torn apart by societal forces beyond its control.

As the film opens, the family’s two youngest sons are busy spying on dad and grandad through the fuzziness of an overinflated balloon. Only, unbeknownst to them, it isn’t a balloon at all but a condom, a slightly embarrassing harbinger of modernity now necessitated by the recently instituted One Child Policy. With the oldest boy away at high school, Dargye (Jinpa) and his wife Drolkar (Sonam Wangmo) have three kids already and paying the fine on a fourth would more or less mean financial ruin. Thankfully, the condoms are free – the only problem being that Drolkar has to go to the clinic in town to ask for them which she finds extremely embarrassing, so much so that she can’t even bear to say the word, almost winking as she whispers “the free things” before quickly stuffing them in her pocket. 

What Drolkar wanted to ask the doctor about, however, was the possibility of sterilisation. With the kids constantly nicking the condoms along with the chance that they aren’t 100% reliable, she is in constant worry of what it might mean for the family if she becomes pregnant with a fourth child, especially, she tells the doctor, because Dargye seems to be in a particularly amorous mood at the moment which increases the chances of something going “wrong”. The female doctor can’t quite understand Drolkar’s prudery, or her slightly “old-fashioned” way of thinking. The doctor, obviously, enjoyed a university education. She has a career of her own and a clearly defined individual life as something other than a wife and mother. She wonders why anyone would want to have so many children in this day and age. Having only one means she can devote all of her resources in one direction, ensuring her child can have a good education and the best start in life, whereas Dargye has just had to sell a cow to pay for his eldest’s school fees while the second two stay home.

For Drolkar, who was perfectly happy with the way things were, the world is still an intensely patriarchal place and even if she wanted to (which she doesn’t, really), it’s probably too late to become anything other than a wife to her husband and mother to her sons. This her sister Ani (Yangshik Tso) learned to her cost. Venturing pick up her nephew Jamyang from school she ends up running into an old flame who apparently ruined her life though some kind of “misunderstanding” which led to her leaving home to become a nun. Now a divorced teacher and apparently rising literary star, he hands her a book inspired by their love affair which he hopes might help to explain whatever it was that happened between them, but Drolkar, still outraged on her sister’s behalf, prevents her from reading it – firstly by throwing it on the fire causing Ani to get her fingers burned (again, but literally) pulling it out, and then by telling Ani’s ex to take the book back and refrain from causing any more trouble dragging up the past.

Yet as much as she’s Dargye’s wife Drolkar tries to assert her authority in other ways aside from taking control of her sister’s romantic future. More practical than her husband, it’s she who is in charge of the condoms, and she who worries about the potential effects of a problematic pregnancy on their family. In a society as patriarchal as this, some might say that such things are in any case a woman’s responsibility, but Drolkar’s belief that bearing a child or not is her own decision eventually places her at odds with her husband who becomes temporarily violent when faced with his impotence, powerless to prevent his wife aborting their baby if that’s what she decides, but also at the mercy of the Chinese state who have arbitrarily decided that something as natural as conceiving a child is now a crime.

For Dargye and his family who live traditional lives far from the urban centres of the modern state, it isn’t only the pain and sadness of being forced to abort their child against their will which burdens them but a spiritual taboo in knowing that the child whose birth they’d be denying may be the reincarnated soul of a much loved relative. Drolkar is forced to choose between her Buddhist beliefs and the demands of Chinese communism, her husband’s wishes and those of the state acting as father. Of course she tries to choose her family, but whichever decision she makes may destroy it either through her husband’s resentment or the costs involved with trying to defy the political reality.

Grandad laments that everyone rides motorbikes these days, you never see horses anymore. Times have indeed changed, but in some ways more than others. While Dargye seems to draw vicarious power from the randy ram he’s borrowed from his friend to stud his sheep, a figure of robust and virile masculinity, he’s effectively neutered by the society in which he lives. Conversely, Drolkar, according to the doctor at least, ought to feel herself liberated but is left with no real choice at all. Only the kids, cheerfully playing with the instruments of their parents’ oppression, have learned to find innocent joy in the midst of such uncertainty while the modern world creeps in all around them.


Balloon was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)