'Fagara' ('Huajiao zhiwei'): Film Review

Courtesy of Media Asia
A neo-women’s film that speaks to contemporary Asia.

Sammi Cheng joins Megan Lai and Li Xiaofeng as reconnecting sisters in director Heiward Mak’s latest film, produced by industry heavyweight Ann Hui.

Three sisters from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China, previously unknown to each other, come together to form a fragile but ultimately hopeful family in Fagara, the latest feature by writer-director Heiward Mak.

Mak is best known for easily digestible relationship dramas like Ex and Diva, and as co-writer on Pang Ho-cheung’s popular, cranky relationship drama Love in a Puff from 2010, and delivers what is arguably her most accomplished work to date. Relieving cross-strait tensions, however, takes a back seat to the emotional ebbs and flows of realizing fundamental new truths as a poorly adjusted adult and wrestling with obligations that are hoisted on us rather than accepted. Mak’s gentle sentimentality and recognizable themes could easily win Fagara attention around the region, and it should enjoy a long life at niche festivals.

Mak’s body of work has always centered on what is expected of modern women, how those expectation clash with what they themselves desire — personally, professionally, emotionally — and she has always attempted to balance local specificity with universality. The film was based on a book by ostensible Hong Kong “chick lit” writer Amy Cheung, who’s made her own career out of bittersweet novels about women struggling with familial expectations and obligations and feeling constrained by Chinese social mores and cultural taboos. It would be easy for Mak and producer Ann Hui (Boat People, The Way We Are) to slip a comment about Hong Kong-Taiwan-China relations into the mix, but it would veer away from Cheung’s original story as well as likely flirt with unnecessary controversy (particularly in light of the ongoing political unrest in Hong Kong at screening time). The most notable thing about Fagara is its non-aggressively allegorical tone for a story about three sisters from three different locations that exist in a constant state of socio-political friction.

The drama begins with frazzled Hong Kong travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng) dealing with her estranged father Ha Leung’s (Kenny Bee) death and the awkward — and incorrect — Taoist funeral she holds for him. Not only was his death sudden, it reveals the existence of two other grown sisters: the androgynous, pool-playing Taiwanese Branch (Megan Lai) and the orange-haired digital fashionista Cherry (Li Xiaofeng) from China. For her entire life, Acacia has harbored resentment toward the woman who took her father away from her, and upon meeting her daughter — her half-sister — she’s more than a little emotionally conflicted. Cherry initially appears to be something of a wild card, and the child of yet another woman in Chongqing who kept him away from Hong Kong. The three team up to save Ha’s hot pot restaurant and settle his debts, and in doing so they connect as a family, mourn their father and reconcile their personal relationships to him and perception of who he was.

Steering clear of overt politics, Mak falls into a comfortable family drama rhythm that passes the (over-abused) Bechdel test with flying colors. Fagara is unabashedly feminist and unapologetically feminine — yes, those are different concepts — and gives Hong Kong cinema three of the most vivid female characters to come down the pipe in a long, long time. As audiences we’re trained to expect fireworks from women who discover a potential conflict of interest with other women, but here, their mutual suspicions hinge more on surprise than antagonism, and they maturely navigate their way to a respectful bond. It’s a sisterhood in all its literal and figurative glory with the trio supporting each other without prying; offering unspoken help without judging.

Though Cheng is clearly the “star” and Acacia gets the lion’s share of the narrative focus, each gets a subplot that demonstrates the various hurdles and indignities they actually share. Acacia contemplates continuing a relationship with a man (Andy Lau) she has no real romantic affection for rather than beginning one with a doctor (Richie Jen) that excites her intellect. Cherry needs to constantly fend off by her adoring grandmother’s (Wu Yanshu) suggestions that she find a husband, consciously choosing to stay with the elderly woman she clearly adores in return. Branch (who is coded more LGBTQ than simply androgynous) has a tense relationship with her mother (Liu Jueichi), due in part to her philandering father and her unconventional professional choices. The prickly few days they spend separated as Branch reaches out to Acacia and Cherry ironically brings them closer together.

It would all be treacly, weepy nonsense were Mak not to maintain a light touch, and, especially, if the three leads weren’t so engaging. Cherry would benefit from more depth, but Li keeps the character pleasantly unpredictable. The breakout is super-cool and eminently watchable Lai, who balances Branch’s guarded sexuality and simmering thirst for both expression and connection to her mother perfectly.

Production company: Golden Gate Productions
Cast: Sammi Cheng, Megan Lai, Li Xiaofeng, Liu Jueichi, Wu Yanshu, Andy Lau, Richie Jen, Kenny Bee
Director-screenwriter: Heiward Mak, based on the novel by Amy Cheung
Producers: Ann Hui, Julie Chu
Executive producers: Peter Lam, Xu Zhongmin, Albert Yeung, David Hu, Liu Rong, Johnny Hon
Director of photography: S.K. Yip
Production designer: Cheung Siu-hong
Costume designer: Cheung Siu-hong
Editors: Heiward Mak, Chung Siu-hong
Music: Yusuke Hatano
World sales: Media Asia

In Cantonese and Putonghua
118 minutes