Forbidden Fruits

The Fruit Hunters
(Canada, 95 min.)
Dir. Yung Chang, Writ. Yung Chang, Mark Slutsky
Book: Adam Gollner
Featuring: Bill Pullman, Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, Isabella Dalla.
Photo credit: Mila Aung-Thwin, © EyesteelFilm, Inc.
Fruit is the unsung hero of gourmet nibblings. An aspiring foodie, my exotic samplings tend to veer on the carnivorous side. I’ve tried horse (loved it), cooked an octopus (I liked it, others did not), paired an ostrich burger with a kangaroo burger (liked the former, but the latter tastes like horse laced with multi-purpose cleaner), and would eat bone marrow every day if I could. When it comes to fruit, however, my adventurousness ends at canned peaches. Foodies need to take a cue from their mommies and eat their fruits and vegetables, too. Foodie film-buffs will love The Fruit Hunters, then, since its reveals a smorgasbord of decadent edibles with a better eco-footprint and calorie count than fatty meats.

The Fruit Hunters, based on the book by Adam Gollner, looks at a surprising food culture that one wouldn’t even dream exists in our land of easily accessible supermarkets stuffed with fruits and veggies all year round. It makes sense that exotic fruit hunters exist, though, since taste buds might wan at the common offerings presented en masse. The Fruit Hunters follows a league of exotic fruit nuts that hunts the jungles—braving snakes, bugs, and poisonous berries—to find delectable forbidden fruit.

Like the sprightly John Laroche in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, the fruit hunters are an eccentric bunch who shows that the most desirable prizes are the hardest to obtain. Fruit hunters like Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell, for example, embark on an odyssey akin to that of John Laroche and Susan Orlean as they trounce the Florida everglades in search of the mysterious ghost orchid. Ledesma and Campbell are in search of a rare mango-like fruit: Richard brought a sample back to Miami years before and has been grafting plants that have yet to yield any fruit. Some tasty exotic fruits are like the Holy Grail of healthy living.

Another thread of The Fruit Hunters follows actor Bill Pullman as he details his passion for exotic fruits. Pullman, too, takes the viewer on a journey to foreign lands, but his story is also about trying to spread the love for healthy eating with his fellow Americans. The film reveals Pullman’s attempt to establish an exotic fruit co-op right in the heart of the Hollywood hills. Even in the epicentre of mass production, juicy hidden treasures are just a few steps away.

Whether it’s a fruit detective in Italy or a lychee hungry courtesan in Imperial China, the film blends documentary footage with spirited dramatic re-enactments to show how fruit has shaped the world since the first bite of an apple. Like Adaptation., Charlie Kaufman’s zany adaptation of Susan Orlean’s Orchid Thief, The Fruit Hunters looks back through the ages of human history and charts the course that brought certain plants and tastes into kitchens in North America. The Fruit Hunters adds a few other flavours to show how the mania for exotic fruit-stuff travels the globe. Likewise, the film shows how much of the accessibility to certain foods is driven by generations of capitalism: I would have never guessed that the Cavendish banana had such a history on how and why it came to be the staple of food stores everywhere. The Fruit Hunters is more akin to what The Orchid Thief would be had Kaufman done a straightforward adaptation, but Chang’s take on the popular book is still a fun and informative look at food culture. (And I’m sure Adam Gollner appreciates that writers Chang and Slutsky didn’t turn him into a drug-snorting porn star…)

The film, however, might have extended the implications of the fruit hunters’ quests more strongly had it narrowed in on fewer threads. The story with Pullman’s quest to expand exotic fruit appreciation in Hollywood could have been a film in itself (Pullman’s story joined the film in its early stages), but the thread nevertheless implies that cultivating the fruity riches of the earth offers considerable advantages to economic and environmental sustainability. The sentiment echoes in another thread in which the forest of a nomadic tribe is threatened by deforestation, but the snapshot seems secondary amidst other narratives of greater narrative significance. Likewise, the interesting story with Ledesma and Campbell sometimes gets lost amidst the other fruit hunters, but their journey offers some general details on horticulture and informs viewers on how the fruit hunters manage to transport and grow such plants back in America.

In every case, though, The Fruit Hunters playfully reveals how the juicy samplings of the fruit are worth the effort, whether taste or health/eco-consciousness is the desired treat. The Fruit Hunters is certainly a success, though, as its mouth-watering odyssey through food culture is sure to inspire a wave of fruit hunting within moviegoers. The film tingles the taste buds with its sprawling account of our connection to the earth and of our duty to preserve its tasty riches.
Cactus pear, persimmon, 'plant'
Dragon fruit and star fruit.

Foodies and film buffs alike were treated to free samplings of exotic fruits following a screening of The Fruit Hunters at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. I tried some strange thing that was like a cross between a grape and a lychee. It intrigued my taste buds, so my brother and I eagerly explored the fruit markets in The Annex and Chinatown for juicy treats. The first wave of fruit hunting brought forth a persimmon, a cactus pear, and some green thing that had the generic taste of “plant”. I quite enjoyed the persimmon (like an orange-tomato hybrid) and the cactus pear (different, but in a good way). The “plant” stayed sliced up on the plate. Day 2 had even better rewards: a dragon fruit and a star fruit. Both are tasty and juicy, and they’re not too extreme for casual fruit eaters to sample whilst branching out from apples and bananas. I might even go in search of a durian today, if I feel up for the challenge.

Congrats, Fruits Hunters – you have one more fruit fan ripe for the plucking!

The Fruit Hunters opens in Ottawa at The Mayfair (Bank) on Feb. 8.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)