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)

More than Blue (比悲傷更悲傷的故事, Gavin Lin, 2018)

More than blue poster“What’s so romantic about eternity?” asks the heroine of Gavin Lin’s remake of the 2009 Korean film More than Blue (比悲伤更悲伤的故事, Bǐ Bēishāng gèng Bēishāng de Gùshì). As the title, which literally translates as “a sadder than sad story”, implies More than Blue is another addition to Taiwanese cinema’s growing roster of melancholy romantic melodramas though this time one which rips a page from the “jun-ai” notebook as its selfless pair of lonely lovers engage in acts of mutual self sacrifice in an attempt to make each other “happy” while remaining quietly miserable as they contemplate a future which may not actually exist.

The hero, nicknamed K (Jasper Liu), lost his father to leukaemia when he was 16. His mother left shortly afterwards on learning that he too had the same disease, unable to cope with the pain of watching her son fade in the same way her husband had. Resigning himself to a life of loneliness, K eventually met “Cream” (Ivy Chen Yi-han), a cheerful and outgoing girl who lost her entire family in a traffic accident. The pair become friends, go to the same university, and eventually move in together but despite a brief fumble and innocent kiss their relationship remains entirely platonic. 10 years later, they’re working for the same record company where Cream is a lyricist and K in promotion. K’s illness is worsening and there’s no sign of a transplant. He has never told Cream about his medical history and now fearing that the end is near, he decides that the best thing to do is to push her towards a nice guy who can look after her after he is gone.

As someone else later points out, K’s decision is a little chauvinistic. Not only has he made it entirely alone, but he’s done so on fairly mercenary terms which imply Cream is not capable of looking after herself rather than solely of hoping to cushion the blow for the time when she must eventually lose him. After all, all relationships end one way or another and it’s impossible to live a life without loss without isolating yourself entirely from the rest of the human race. Then again, that had been K’s original reaction to his mother’s abandonment. Only Cream was able to bring him back into the world again through her goodhearted cheerfulness. K wants to spare her the pain of losing him and of being left behind alone, but perhaps that isn’t his decision to make.

Echoing the title of the movie, K affirms that it’s getting used to loneliness that is “sadder than sad” while also insisting that if anyone could understand the nature of love then no one in the world would suffer because of it. What K has is the wounded nobility of the jun-ai hero who has decided that it is his duty alone to suffer and that by suffering himself he can prevent his loved one from feeling the pain, but of course his emotional aloofness only makes things worse for everyone. Determined to make a brighter future for Cream, he smiles through the tears but neglects to consider that she may prefer a shorter present with him than a long life without. All his pointless romantic engineering amounts to is a silly waste of time during which they might both have been happy if only someone had found the courage for emotional honesty in the face of eventual heartbreak.

Lin wastes no time in letting us know this will be a tragic story through the slight disconnect of a framing sequence which casts the central romance as a lengthy flashback narrated by a peripheral figure to a frustrated music producer and her A-list idol star (played by real life singer A-Lin) who have fallen in love with an unrecorded track, “A Kind of Sorrow”, penned by Cream and performed by K. The song itself references the “darkness” within the pair born of their mutual losses, but also the light that love has brought into their lives. Cream gets into an argument with a poppy idol (who proves more astute than she at first seems) over the use of the world “eternity” within a love song. She doesn’t believe in the idea of eternity because love only lasts until one of the lovers is gone. Eternity, as we later discover, is found in the moment or more precisely in the moment of togetherness which is something both K and Cream have rejected in their escalating attempts at selfless nobility which have made them both individually miserable.

The lesson seems clear – just make the most of the time you have without worrying about the future and live honestly in the moment without regrets. Sadly, it’s a lesson the lovers of More than Blue fail to learn until it’s too late. Melodrama to the max it may be, and the strangely comic tone somewhat out of sync with the eventual destination, but there is real dark heart in More than Blue’s belief in the eternity of love even if also in its inherent tragedy.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

A Kind of Sorrow as performed by A-Lin

Take Me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Hsieh Chun-Yi, 2017)

take me to the moon posterShould you continue pursuing your dreams even after you know they won’t come true or just give in and live a dull but comfortable life of conformity? These are questions most young people face at one time or another, but for the hero of Hsieh Chun-Yi’s Take me to the Moon (帶我去月球, Dài Wǒ Qù Yuèqiú), they take on an extra dimension when he is suddenly thrown back into the past with an opportunity to “save” the life of a friend if only he can convince her to abandon her dreams of stardom and stay home instead. A melancholy nostalgia fest for late ‘90s Taiwan (and the late ‘90s in general), Take me to the Moon is an ode to lost opportunities, words unsaid, and the immutability of the past which nevertheless makes room for the odd miracle or two as its hero realises perhaps he’s not grown up as much as he thought.

Three years prior to the main action, 30-something Wang (Jasper Liu) takes a business trip to Tokyo where he reconnects with high school friend Emma (Vivian Sung) who won a prestigious competition to go to Japan and train with a big idol producer. Sadly, Emma’s dreams have not panned out and she’s embarrassed to let her old friend see just how badly things have been going for her. Fast-forward three years to the present and Emma has unfortunately passed away at only 38 after years of hard drinking in hostess bars, poor nutrition, and overwork finally caught up with her. The once tight group of high school bandmates, two of whom have become a married couple, argue over their collective failure to save their friend at which point Wang walks out, meets a weird old woman who gives him some strange flowers, and is knocked over by a car only to wake up back in 1997. Desperate to save Emma, Wang thinks his best bet lies in ruining her chance to go to Japan so that she will never experience the failure of her hopes and dreams and will stay home to live a simpler, safer life.

Filled with a youthful nostalgia and feeling of authenticity, Take me to the Moon makes the most of its ‘90s setting, recreating the late 20th century city through impressive CGI. Wang reacquaints himself with his teenage self, retrieving his well hidden box of tame pornography and enjoying another few bowls of his mother’s delicious fish soup, but his main goal is essentially to ruin the dreams of his friend – an act of betrayal which might be in her interest, but then again it isn’t Wang’s choice to make and perhaps Emma would rather follow her heart even if it means it’s going to get broken.

What Wang eventually realises, as one of the Tom Chang tracks which pepper the narrative points out, is that what he should have been treasuring was the extra time spent with friends rather than worrying about the future. Back in his teenage years Wang was too shy to confess his lifelong crush on Emma and then went on to be plagued by classic bad timing in adulthood until finally it was too late. His attempts to “save” Emma by ruining her life are in part selfish but also cowardly in taking the place of simply saying the things he needed to say at the right time. Finally figuring this out, Wang realises that he can’t “save” Emma like the hero of a time travel movie by manipulating the past, but he has been given a second chance to let her know how he felt. This, in the end, is what may finally, really “save” his friend – simply letting her know that he is there supporting her, that she’s fine as she is and doesn’t need to be “perfect” to be loved as her overbearing parents have led her to believe.

Though Wang awakens to a more positive change than he might have expected, the general idea is that you can’t rehash the past and should make sure that you’re happy with your present to avoid the desire to try. Having given up on his youthful dreams for a lonely corporate existence, middle-aged Wang regains a little of his essential self and decides to fight for a more authentic way of life even if it doesn’t really go anywhere. Warm and fuzzy yet also strangely melancholy, Take me to the Moon is another in a long line of Taiwanese high school nostalgia movies but proves a fitting tribute both to its era and the singer songwriter featured throughout who himself died young in a tragic car accident in 1997 aged just 31.


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Original 1997 music video for Tom Chang’s Take Me to the Moon