Some people collect fine wines. Others accumulate chess sets, or toy soldiers, or Dickensiana. As its title suggests, the quirky characters that populate Yung Chang’s new feature-length documentary The Fruit Hunters are obsessed with something most of us take for granted: fruit – the more exotic the better.
Almost literally a subculture, they revere fruit in all its forms – for its succulence and taste, for its colours and shapes, for the life-affirming connection it provides to nature. The modern world, the film suggests, has largely and sadly lost that link, but learning to appreciate the earth’s fecund orchards may help restore it.
Based on his friend Adam Gollner’s much-talked-about book of the same name, Chang’s doc follows a half-dozen fanatics in their quest to savour all things fruity. There’s a Hollywood actor (Bill Pullman), for whom true ecstasy is not a lead role, but a long day tilling, pruning and watering the soil of his back-yard fruit farm. There’s a fruit curator (Richard Campbell) for whom a choice avocado is comparable to the Mona Lisa; a Honduran scientist (Juan Fernando Aguilar), whose mission is to find a substitute for the Cavendish banana – a monoculture now flirting with bacterial disaster; and an Italian woman (Isabella Dalla Ragione) who has planted an Orchard of Forgotten Fruit, based on ancient, rediscovered varieties.
Intelligent and unhurried, the film ripens as it unfolds, attempting to do what fruit does, seduce us with its colours, designs and tastes (and Olivier Alary’s tasteful score).
Chang, director of two earlier and acclaimed documentaries (Up the Yangtze and China Heavyweight), is our voice-over guide as well as the brain behind the camera, and successfully fills his script with juicy factoids; you will likely never again think of the Macintosh apple or the Bing cherry in quite the same way. And Mark Ellam’s lush cinematography comes as close as cinematically possible to capturing the sensory, mouth-watering delights of mangosteen, jackfruit and mango.
But the virtue of its eclecticism is, in a sense, also its central flaw – that is, there is no fully satisfying narrative through-line to sustain us. True, the likable, low-key Pullman tries to rally his neighbours to campaign for the creation of a communal orchard on an unoccupied tract in the Hollywood Hills. And there’s another recurring story line involving a quixotic search for a particularly rare variety of durian in Borneo.
But neither of these actually packs much theatrical drama, or is able to command our emotional engagement. And the other motifs, necessary to fill the canvas of fruits hunters, keep getting in the way.
Thus, while The Fruit Hunters is at once savoury, meditative and instructive, its worshipful approach to the subject seems to suck all the seeds of dramatic tension from the film.