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Fagara
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by Jay Seaver

"A tasty stew made with ingredients from around the East."
4 stars

"Fagara" is the sort of small family drama whose story has been told more than a few times - who hasn't discovered their father had a secret life after he passed away - but is just better enough at it on most counts that it actually winds up fairly impressive. It's so well put together that director Heiward Mak Hei-Yan can dispense with much of what other movies would use to prop it up.

In this case, the daughter is Acacia Ha (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man), who is not quite estranged from her father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) but doesn't cross Hong Kong's harbor very often to see him, either, at least not until one of the employees at his restaurant calls urgently from the hospital; by the time she gets there, he's passed on. When going through the contacts on his phone, she discovers that two of them also call him "Dad" - Branch Au Yeung (Megan Lai Ya-Yan), a professional billiards player in Taiwan, and Cherry Ha (Li Xiaofeng), a fashion blogger in Chongqing. She gives them the news and invites them to the funeral, and though wary, they soon bond over their father's famous fagara hot pot. Unfortunately, that hot pot is a secret recipe, and the restaurant has a year to go on a lease Acacia can't afford to break.

Mak does a neat thing in one of the early scenes, when Acacia is working as a travel agent and has to book a trip that a businessman is taking with his secretary; a sequence of disapproving acquiescence that establishes this sort of adultery as normalized. It makes it a little easier to come out of the hurt and shock of Acacia finding out she has two half-sisters without needing to spend much time judging or explaining their father. It's there, in the way people ask questions at the funeral, but mostly it plays as an important factor in who the women are now. It's worth noting that what might be romantic subplots in other films are held a bit at arm's length, the audience not quite sure what to make of Acacia's two potential suitors or Cherry's seemingly complete disinterest in having one; if Leung and the women he abandoned did damage them, it's not something that will be cathartically remedied after his death.

Instead, the audience mostly watches these women, and they are all interesting, with the three two co-stars given room to define them without trademark tics or melodramatic plots. Sammi Cheng - one of Hong Kong's biggest stars who may be best known in the West for a supporting role in Infernal Affairs - is especially terrific as Acacia, clearly knocked for a loop by her father's death but carrying enough anger that she can't fully let it out, but also guilt at that anger. The differences between how she plays her present and scenes from a few years earlier when she can be more openly bitter are clear but never exaggerated. Megan Lai's Branch is often easy to write off as closed-off and focused - a sequence of her at a competition lets a lot of personality come out by how she plays, which is always nice to see - enough that it's sometimes easy to forget how naturally she lets that slip when talking with her stepsister, or how easily she embraces Acacia and Cherry. Li Xiaofeng often seems to have a lighter, more carefree character as Cherry, but she handles both the moments meant to identify her as a seemingly callow selfie-taking millennial and the ones where she's clearly grasped hard onto the family that has cared for her with grace.

That family, aside from her new sisters, is a grandmother played by Wu Yanshu in impressively gruff fashion, a prideful mask that only occasionally slips to show how much she actually loves her granddaughter, the one of several fine supporting performances that most successfully attempt to steal the film; Liu Juei Chi doesn't get quite so much opportunity as Branch's mother. The movie is peppered with memorable bits, though: Andy Lau Tak-Wah and Richie Jen Xian-Qi make an interesting contrast as Acacia's financé and the anesthetist she meets at the hospital who at least superficially seems a better match. Kenny Bee makes an intriguing impression as Leung, warm and soft- spoken in most flashbacks, and Mak uses the raw materials that performance provides to make him more enigmatic, someone Acacia may never truly be able to understand.

They performances are just one part of what it's done well here without a lot of unnecessary flash. Mak is confident enough to jump time periods without warning or changes in the visual style, letting Acacia's memories mingle with her present without it seeming like a gimmick. She tends to show the three Chinas as having more in common than they do differences but doesn't ignore those differences either (I'm mildly curious about language issues; the film is in Mandarin despite mostly being set in Hong Kong, although one scene seems to reference Cherry needing to have Cantonese translated). It's nicely shot in all three cities, with a scene or two like the fire dance at the funeral that make the audience sit up and pay attention. Mak also finds underused elements in familiar metaphors, like how some spices are actually used to numb the palate when that is what is needed.

This discovery of a hidden family is not a new story - Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Our Little Sister" is a notable recent example - but it's one that resonates when told well. Heiward Mak tells it quite well indeed, focusing on the interesting moments and leaving the filler out, and has a really fine performance from Cheng to tie it together.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33366&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/16/19 12:47:07
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USA
  13-Sep-2019

UK
  N/A

Australia
  12-Sep-2019


Directed by
  Heiward Mak

Written by
  Heiward Mak

Cast
  Sammi Cheng
  Megan Lai
  Xiaofeng Li
  Kenny Bee
  Yanshu Wu
  Andy Lau



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