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)

The Sleep Curse (失眠, Herman Yau, 2017)

sleep curse posterInsomnia can be like a curse, a yearning for sleep that yields no rest and paints the days with a lingering greyness but the regular kind of sleeplessness rarely has consequences as extreme as those experienced by the beleaguered protagonists of Herman Yau’s The Sleep Curse (失眠). Historical trauma and cultural memories continue to haunt the present, the refusal to lay the dead to rest giving rise to a hundred hungry ghosts all asking for recognition and some gesture of atonement from those that have come later. Yau’s film touches on some thorny, even taboo areas but doing so in the context of a Category III horror extravaganza that eventually descends into a bloodbath of perverse depravity might even push poor taste too far.

In 1990, a Malaysian Chinese grandfather celebrates his birthday and then develops chronic insomnia which eventually drives him insane, murderous, and suicidal. Meanwhile, abrasive professor Lam Sik-ka (Anthony Wong) is hard at work on a controversial research programme to discover a way for people to live without the need for sleep. His latest grant application has just been turned down because the university can’t see the benefit in his research and claim his methods are unethical. Sik-ka is, therefore, even happier than might be thought to reunite with a former girlfriend, Monique (Jojo Goh), who is the granddaughter of the Malaysian Chinese grandpa and suffers from a rare sleep disorder herself. It’s not for herself she’s approaching Sik-ka though, but for her brother.

For unrelated reasons, Sik-ka is also anxious to lay his own father’s ghost to rest by visiting a Taoist priest to help him remember what happened to his dad back in 1943. What ensues is two lengthy flashbacks to occupied Hong Kong in which Sik-ka’s father, Sing (also played by Wong), is coerced into collaborating with the Japanese when it is discovered that he was raised in Japan and has fluent command of the language. While Sing’s capitulation is guilt-ridden and born of fear for himself and his family, another turncoat, Chow Fok (Gordon Lam), has embraced his role as an active participant in Japanese rule, rounding up girls for the local “comfort station” which he himself runs.

The Japanese are an easy target, but Yau has his sights set on the evils of collaboration and his eye is particularly unforgiving. Sik-ka’s father is repeatedly described as a “good man”, though often by those seeking to justify his less good actions. The film acknowledges the difficulty of Sing’s position as a single father desperate to protect his son and mother yet fearing that one wrong move or unwise refusal may get them all killed. He does good where he can – helping a small number of young comfort women to escape, but finds that his “good” deed provokes only more harm when 40 are required to take the place of four escaped. Sing saves one of twins, “awarded” to him in place of a wife by the lecherous Japanese Colonel, but finds himself the subject of a curse by her supernaturally endowed sister who casts her evil eye upon all those who have wronged her.

This particular plot development makes little sense seeing as Sing is the one thing between her sister and the fate worse than death that she has just endured. Nevertheless, the vengeful ghost of a betrayed woman follows one generation to the next in her quest for retribution, remaining unseen and unremembered by those who should avenge her. Given the sensitivity of the issues, which maybe more pronounced in territories further North than Hong Kong, it is perhaps in poor taste to make them the centre of an exploitation leaning Category III horror film, offering only the message that the unresolved past will eventually consume the children who inherit only past trauma from their guilt ridden (or unrepentant) forebears.

Yau begins in the mode of tame absurdity as Sik-ka calmly breaks into a morgue for an impromptu bit of brain theft (later shoving his loot into a hollowed out durian fruit to hide his crime), but descends into blood soaked depravity in the increasingly strange final reel. Genuinely outrageous, though also incoherent, The Sleep Curse should provoke nightmares enough with its shocking, gore filled finale but may also leave a sour taste in the mouth.


Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles – contains intense gore/violence!)