Contemporary Chinese Cinema: Sammi Cheng Stars in Heiward Mak's "Fagara"

Heiward Mak's fourth film, starring Sammi Cheng, confirms her as one of the most promising directors to recently emerge in Hong Kong.
Sean Gilman

Contemporary Chinese Cinema is a column devoted to exploring contemporary Chinese-language cinema primarily as it is revealed to us at North American multiplexes.

This past weekend, inspired by the RZA, I watched a dingy, cropped, and badly dubbed copy of the 1983 Taiwanese kung fu film Shaolin vs. Lama. It’s not a great film: generic plot, mediocre acting, lame comedy; but the stunt work is extremely good. I’ve watched hundreds of Hong Kong and other Chinese language movies over the past few years, and in every case I’ve taken care to avoid this kind of shoddy presentation, going out of my way to find the best possible images with the original language soundtracks. Because of that, sometimes I forget that for most of my life cheap and dubbed was the only way to see many of the best action films in the world, while almost all of the Chinese language films that didn’t happen to be action movies were simply not available in any form.

But that’s not the case anymore. Thanks to a proliferation of streaming companies with a voracious need for content, the ease of buying DVDs internationally, and the efforts of small theatrical distributors like China Lion and Well Go, it has now become routine that we in the U.S. get to see movies from East Asia the way they were meant to be seen. We don’t even have Harvey Weinstein around sitting on the rights to movies for years or chopping them up according to his bizarre whims anymore. And best of all, these companies are doing more than just releasing action movies. In the five years I’ve been following the releases of Chinese films in North American theatres, I’ve seen movies from all kinds of genres: serious dramas from big name auteurs, low-brow slapstick comedies, sci-fi epics, intimate family dramas, romances of all sort, coming of age movies, disease melodramas, et cetera. All of which is to say that a movie like Fagara never would have seen a screen of any kind in the U.S. thirty years ago. It’s a quiet family drama that’s a little too slick, a little too populist, to have drawn raves on the festival or art-house circuit, but it’s also resolutely not an action or crime movie. It would have fallen through the cracks of the old distribution system, but here it is this week, opening in multiplexes in major metropolitan areas across North America. 

Sammi Cheng stars as a woman who, after her estranged father dies, learns that he had two other daughters. The women meet for the first time at the funeral, and get to know each other at his restaurant, a small hotpot establishment in Hong Kong. The other daughters, played by Megan Lai and Li Xiaofeng, are from Taiwan and Chongqing, respectively, and after a half an hour or so in which they get to know each other, and figure out what exactly was the timeline of their dad’s various relationships, they return to their respective homes, with Cheng taking over operation of the restaurant for one year. They’ll come together again in the film’s final half hour, after variously breaking down back home: Cheng breaks up with her fiancée (Andy Lau) and barely keeps the restaurant afloat; Lai quarrels with her mother, who doesn’t understand her drive to become a professional billiards player; Li feels pushed out by her grandmother, who wants her to find a husband and quit dying her hair, but not in that order. In flashbacks and ghostly visions, Cheng recalls her father, and it’s through her that we come to understand him. Played by Kenny Bee, he’s basically just a really good guy who totally failed at being a husband and father at least three times. The film is about his daughters trying to understand and forgive him for that. Learning to accept all of the good things he did, for them and for others, without resenting him for what he failed to be for them.

Director Heiward Mak is one of the most promising directors to emerge in Hong Kong over the past decade, and this is the first time she’s worked with a cast this accomplished. Fagara is a lush, glossy, gorgeous movie, full of deeps oranges and browns, delicious-looking food, and beautiful people tastefully dressed. In Hollywood terms, it’s like a less manic, more wistful Nancy Myers movie. But its antecedents are more properly found in Hong Kong. Stanley Kwan gets a shout out in the film’s closing credits, and in structure the film recalls his 1989 classic Full Moon in New York, about three women from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China who meet occasionally in America and their separate relationship and familial dramas. Ann Hui also has a producing credit, though it’s just one of many such credits on the film. One probably one shouldn’t make to much of that connection—Sarah, Duchess of York has one too. But certainly the film shares Hui’s focus on women’s points-of-view, in particular the misunderstandings that can occur between generations. Cheng’s learning about her father’s past, and coming to forgive him for it, follows the arc Maggie Cheung follows with her mother in Hui’s 1990 Song of the Exile, for example. But Fagara most reminded me of Sylvia Chang’s movies, both in its warm, professional style and its subject matter, recalling the three women of 20 30 40 and the reconciliation with a departed parent and long-long siblings in Murmur of the Hearts.

This is Mak’s fourth feature, depending on how you count her last long-form work, Uncertain Relationships Society, which was broadcast as a series on Hong Kong television but played in a different cut at feature length at the Vancouver Film Festival in 2014 (I’ve seen both cuts and the VIFF version is significantly better but as far as I know, unavailable anywhere). Her films as director to this point have largely focused on young people: high school students in the drama High Noon, her 2008 debut; a young love triangle in 2010’s anti-romance Ex (her finest pre-Fagara film, I think); a pop star in 2012’s Diva; and a group of twenty somethings in Uncertain’s network narrative. As a screenwriter, she’s won accolades as the co-writer of Pang Ho-cheung’s seminal romantic comedy Love in a Puff and was one of seven credited screenwriters on last year’s action dud Golden Job, a hint that in addition to television and other short form work, she’s spent much of her career working as a script doctor. She’s also got an editing credit on Fagara, as she did on High Noon. Her films are sharp and incisive, melodramas that avoid the gooey or maudlin but still embrace emotional catharsis. They’re well-crafted pop movies, rooted, as few films are these days, in Hong Kong as a specific place, albeit one that has changed from the grimy laissez-faire hell of the 80s into a comfortable, if over-priced, bourgeois space.

Most of her films have been populated largely with younger actors and relative unknowns, but Fagara features two of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Pop singer Sammi Cheng is best known in the U.S. as the star of some of Johnnie To’s finest films (Romancing in Thin Air, My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts) and it was her collaboration with Andy Lau in the romantic comedy Needing You… that is largely credited with setting To’s Milkyway Image studio on a firm enough foundation for him and his collaborators to embark on their most daring genre experiments. For years in the early 2000s, Milkyway would put out a steady stream of esoteric action movies financed largely by the profits from Sammi Cheng romantic comedies (Wu yen, Love for All Seasons, Love on a Diet, Yesterday Once More, the latter two of which also starred Andy Lau). Largely dismissed by a critical establishment that assumes that only To’s violent, and not coincidentally male-focused, films are worthy of serious consideration (aided by To himself, who has tended to downplay the rom-coms as mere money-makers), these comedies are nonetheless some of his finest work: light and goofy on the surface, concealing unexpected depths of loneliness and despair. They work in large part because of Cheng’s performances, as she moves effortlessly from slapstick to sardonic wisecracks to heart-wrenching melancholy. Fagara too would not work without her. While Lai and Li are solid enough in their matriarchal mini-dramas, Mak finds the heart of the film in Cheng’s memories and visions of her father, leading to an emotional climax far more moving than it probably has any right to be.

While Cheng has the starring role, Andy Lau is the biggest name in Fagara’s cast. Though he only appears in three short scenes, it’s always a pleasure to see him and Cheng together. The last time they were was in To’s 2013 Blind Detective, and even confined as they are to conversations in a moving car, very obviously not being driven by Lau, the two sparkle. I’m guessing his role was so physically limited because it was shot while he was recovering from injuries suffered when he fell off a horse in Thailand in 2017, but I’m not sure. Richie Jen is another big name who gets to play off Cheng, as a doctor who knew her father. The two carry on a nice middle-aged platonic friendship. Kenny Bee though gives the best performance of the male co-stars. The 70s rock star (his band The Wynners was the subject of the popular biopic House of the Rising Sons last year) moved into acting and starred in early and important films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsui Hark, and Ann Hui. Constitutionally incapable of playing a bad guy, Bee plays the father as incredibly supportive and nurturing of all those around him, his daughters as well as his restaurant employees, which serve as a make-shift family. It’s this that strikes me as most unusual about Fagara, as well as other Mak films, Uncertain Relationships Society in particular. In these movies, there aren’t any villains. No one is nasty or cruel, or even especially self-centered. Everybody means well, but even still, hearts and families end up broken.

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