Fagara (Hua jiao zhi wei)
Hong Kong (2019) Dir. Heiward Mak
The bond between father and daughter can often be as strong as that between mother and daughter, and one can that can hurt deeply if it is compromised in some way. If it isn’t “Daddy’s little girl” growing up that is the cause, it is the father’s foibles that will throw a spanner in the works.
Acacia Ha (Sammi Cheng), an overworked travel agent based in Hong Kong, gets a call telling her that her father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital but arrives too late to see him before he dies. At the funeral, Acacia learns her father had two other daughters – Taiwanese pool player Branch (Megan Lai) and Chinese fashion blogger Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), and seems there was a lot more about her father she didn’t know.
Ha Leung ran a hotpot restaurant where his trademark Fagara soup was a big hit, but with all three daughters too busy to run it they are forced to sell it until Acacia objects to the buyer’s demands and takes it on herself. But when the stock of the soup runs out, Acacia struggles to replicate it and keep the restaurant running. Fortunately, life for Cherry and branch become unbearable and they flee to Hong Kong to help Acacia out.
Based on a 2010 novel by Hong Kong author Amy Cheung, Fagara takes an amiable but bittersweet look at the importance of the family unit, something we have learned from Asian cinema is exceptional revered. Due to the central plot revolving around the fall out of Ha Leung’s rampant libido, this may not do so well on the Bechdel Test but does show the indomitable strength of women and what they have to tolerate in their respective modern societies.
Essentially, a man is the catalyst for this unusual situation but the story is very much all about the girls and how they may have all grown up without a permanent male influence in their lives but have managed just fine regardless. However, as they discover, there are some things a father can provide a mother can’t, and this does indeed make them all stronger women.
Naturally, this leads them to re-evaluate their own lives and personal relationships that have tangentially been affected by Ha Leung in one way or another. Interestingly, only Branch’s mother, Chang Ya-ling (Liu Juei-chi), exists in the present day narrative – Acacia’s features in flashbacks and Cherry’s only receives a mention. Perhaps this is to avoid repeating the same angle in triplicate and boring the audience – and it works as it gives us three different perspectives by which to get to know the three sisters.
Of the three, Acacia appears the most conservative, dressed in a dowdy “older woman” clothes and glasses, with an acerbic tongue to match her intellect. She had been dating estate agent Kwok Tin-yan (Andy Lau) but still relies on him to drive her around as she doesn’t drive herself, giving him a sense of dominion over Acacia. Tin-yan also got on with Ha Leung, knowing more about him than his daughter did, which doesn’t go down so well with Acacia.
Meanwhile, androgynous Branch is a championship level pro pool player, which in Taiwan is seen as entertainment not a sport, which is why female players are dressed like they are competing on Strictly Come Dancing, not Pot Black! With her slicked-back hair, no make-up, and male-influenced attire, Branch may emit “bad girl” vibes but is in fact a vulnerable and empathetic woman, worn down by her dominant mother.
Ya-ling harasses Branch to get a proper job and berates her for not being home but when they do meet up, Ya-ling starts on her again, widening the divide. That Branch had a better relationship with Ha Leung than she does with her mother eats Ya-ling up inside, and it is this apparent jealousy, despite Ya-ling remarrying, that fuels the sour mood between.
For Cherry, she lives with her elderly grandmother, Liu Fang (Wu Yanshu), who, like Ya-ling has concerns about her granddaughter but keeps her opinions to herself, except when it comes to finding a husband. Cherry is happy being single but Liu Fang can’t help herself, but true to the established theme of the film, neither can explain their feelings openly and conflict ensues.
Working together to save the restaurant and pay off Ha Leung’s debts sees the sisters bond and start to figure out what is important in their lives, the distance between their troubles giving everyone breathing space to take stock of their attitudes. Acacia is the only one with immediate options, as she wants to stop depending on Tin-yan, getting the confidence from potential beau, anaesthetist Choi Ho-san (Richie Jen).
It all sounds fairly run-of-the-mil Sunday afternoon romantic drama, and indeed many genre beats are presents, like the melancholic piano soundtrack and light ambience, but Heiward Mak refuses to be a slave to convention. Light comedy, subtle introspection, and wistful reverie replace lachrymose melodrama, bolstered by strong characterisations and the buoyant chemistry of the three leads.
Sammi Cheng is deceptively robust as the anchor of the story, bringing the humility and grace out from behind Acacia’s prissy demeanour, whilst Li Xiaofeng’s stops just short of making Cherry into a caricature. Top honours for this writer go to Megan Lai, last seen in the zany zom-com Get The Hell Out. Completely unrecognisable compared to that role, Lai is given the most room for nuance and depth as Branch, and is debatably the most sympathetic of the three.
The only thing I found a little disappointing was how the sisters all got on immediately, with no animosity towards each other or arguing over which one was loved the most by Ha Leung – possibly a cliché deliberately eschewed but surely a natural reaction if this was real life.
But this quibble aside, Fagara warms the heart and soul in making us appreciate the true meaning of family and relationships without saccharine manipulation.