The Fruit Hunters
May 14, 7 p.m., Bow Tie Criterion Cinemas, 86 Temple St., New Haven, (203) 498-2500
May 19, 12 p.m., Bow Tie Palace 17 and Odyssey Theater, 330 New Park Ave., Hartford, (860) 236-6677
Food is a big deal in America. In the span of a generation, the country has shifted from relative indifference to lurid obsession when it comes to pathbreaking, exotic, or simply indulgent cuisines. Maybe it's the result of globalized markets, and maybe it has to do with aging Boomers' libidinal substitution of food for sex as a generational pastime. Either way, the results are obvious. The Food Network now airs gruesome reality shows, like the hydra-headed MTV before it, and micro-dietary habits are well within the mainstream.
But the rise of food culture has been accompanied by a new interest in food politics. It's hard to think of a documentary that has done more for this concern than 2008's Food, Inc., a factory-farming expose that helped make Monsanto a household name by excoriating the corporation's business practices. Works like this are the conscious counterpart to the spectacles on television; they try to understand what is at stake in every bite.
Yung Chang's The Fruit Hunters belongs to the second category, though initially this seems unclear. "Is it strange that when I look at certain fruit, I feel a bit aroused?" murmurs narrator Stephen Hoye. This is the first line in the film, accompanying close shots of dewy tropical produce, and it sets the tone for much of the material. Sensual shots of connoisseurs biting into ripe fruit recur throughout The Fruit Hunters; they are a central visual motif. Many of the fruit hunters describe their interest as a love affair, something that is borne out as the film moves on. Chang's narrative style invests heavily in metaphor: establishing it, tracing it through history and myth, locating it in science. We are reminded that the reproductive cycle of fruit depends on human temptation, that it evolved with us, that it knows what we desire. Love is love, but love is also pollination.
At the center of The Fruit Hunters, inspired by Adam Gollner's book of the same name, are the quests of various conservationists, growers, and lay enthusiasts, all drawn to the biology of pre-flowering plants. The film flits back and forth between these stories, with fruit history, raw facts, and dreamy, visually lush interludes filling the space between them. Two American botanists scour the world in search of exotic fruits to grow in the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, among them the wani, a cousin of the mango that is famously difficult to graft. An art historian in Italy identifies rare specimens by comparing them with Renaissance paintings. Actor Bill Pullman tries to unite his Hollywood Hills neighborhood around the goal of a communal orchard. The film does these seekers justice, letting them tell their own stories. The editorial style is quiet and meditative, the soundtrack profoundly unobtrusive.
The Fruit Hunters has a knack for playing with perspective. After listening to a grower comparing the give and take of nurturing a delicate plant to "making love to your wife, your girlfriend," it's momentarily unclear whether the film is documenting the working philosophies of professionals or the quirks of a subculture. The answer, it seems, is both. The film's gardeners harbor both a sensual obsession and a platonic drive toward ecological justice.
One of the film's stronger characters is Valateng Gan, a Penan elder from Borneo. The Penan, one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer societies in Indonesia, have suffered the destruction of much of their land by commercial logging. When we meet Gan, he guides us through the jungle, displaying a staggering body of knowledge: which fruits nourish, which heal, and which kill. Later, we return to Gan as he rides through a deforested wasteland on the back of a truck. "This is like killing us with a bush knife," he says of the logging.
Clearly, The Fruit Hunters is very concerned about things like this. Still, the film is often disappointingly apolitical. At one point, the narrator mentions, in passing and without further explanation, that Hawaii's indigenous government was overthrown by pineapple tycoons. Chang reminds us that fruits start wars, but the film's examples (the Illiad, a lychee-obsessed Imperial Chinese consort) all belong to the romantic past, reenacted and shot through a gauzy filter. "Do you feel the weight of fallen dynasties," the film asks us, "when you devour a lychee?" No, obviously. But we might consider how our diets implicate us in global food insecurity, an unfolding contemporary tragedy.
Still, The Fruit Hunters has plenty to tell us. Its stories are compelling, and its cinematography has a lot going for it in the way of eye candy. One particular effects trick, in which fruits metamorphose into other fruits, is especially hypnotic, and the camera's exploration of the biosphere from apple to tree to orchard is well-executed. In the end, whether you're curious or credentialed, the film is a solid addition to the canon of food journalism.