The titular foragers of Yung Chang's documentary The Fruit Hunters are a small cadre of contemporary rebels from around the world -- including Hollywood actor Bill Pullman and Hawaii Tropical Fruit Growers leader Ken Love -- who have fallen for nature's most exotic and spectacular edibles, such as the mildly sweet, spackled pitaya, the pungent yet silky durian, and the tangy, chewy bulbs of rambutan. Working from the 2008 best-seller by Adam Leith Gollner, Chang builds a multistranded narrative set in several countries, where each of the aforementioned visionaries battles monoculture by harvesting, locally growing, and disseminating rare fruits. Pullman in particular has a remarkable story, and gets a good deal of screen time: We follow his attempts to raise support for -- and construct -- an organic community orchard located behind the Hollywood sign that will bring to Southern California incredible fruits heretofore unseen in North America.
At first glance, this is a relaxed, easygoing picture. It feels gentle, playful, literally and figuratively colorful -- which seems to set it world apart from the more overtly earnest topicality of the director's masterpiece Up the Yangtze (2007). As Chang darts from one narrative thread to another and then back again, and tracks Pullman and others who revel in the glories of obscure, exotic natural delights, the filmmaker is like a kid in a candy store -- bubbling over with the same youthful zeal as his participants and carrying us right along with him. The contagion of the movie's mood accounts for this picture's overwhelming amiability. Chang's aesthetic approach here isn't simply an asset; it's vital. He has a stunning feel for visual texture and chroma, and it manifests most pointedly in the film's imaginative opening credits -- a magnificent stop-motion sequence with a spinning orb of clay morphing into pears, apples, plums, and grapes -- and in the documentary's spectacular narrative setup. Chang begins his chronicle with luxurious close-ups of multihued, multitextured fruit surfaces and pulp that practically beckon us to indulge. We find ourselves drawn in, seduced, and ultimately intoxicated -- an approach that mirrors the sensorial impact of the fruit itself. The documentary's aesthetic wonders also help to vicariously compensate for our inability to immediately taste and savor while the onscreen subjects are doing so.
At the same time, though, the film's apparent lightheartedness is deceptive. Midway through, one begins to realize that Chang is only sustaining his tone cutaneously -- and using the fruit theme as a conduit to a more sublimated and sobering insight: the sweeping environmental crisis that now plagues us. Significantly, Chang implies that the exotic fruits that take center stage are emblematic of an entire lost Valhalla of flora that has been drowned out and nearly obliterated by Western society. This grave loss may be a direct casualty of industrialization (an obvious villain), but it has also been supplanted and masked by something more insidious: the homogenization of fruit species that are robbed of exoticism and numerous taste dimensions by mass domestication and sold as "the norm" from coast to coast in North American supermarkets.
What eventually happens, then, is remarkable: Watching The Fruit Hunters, we find ourselves held so rapt by the paradisiacal visions of what could be that we begin to ache with a primordial longing not simply for the fruit, but for the broader ecological glories to which it points -- and that millions of Westerners aren't even aware of. From there, it's only a short leap to our beginning to share the preoccupation of Pullman and the others and actually wanting to go out and take up the same crusade that has overcome them. This makes the film as immediately effective as any ecological or environmental documentary ever produced.
If The Fruit Hunters missteps, it does so only fleetingly, in a scattered handful of flashbacks that feature comedic reconstructions of historical figures. While these are imaginatively done and technically in keeping with the genial mood that Chang sustains throughout the film, they also seem affected, and are much less persuasive than the surrounding material. Fortunately, because they occupy a scant amount of screen time, they do nothing to detract from what is otherwise a masterful work. The bottom line is that this is a rare documentary with the potential to have a domino-like effect and prompt real, concrete change. In that sense particularly, one can only hope that millions of viewers see it. The majority of those who do will instinctively take its message to heart and find that it makes a massive difference in their paradigms, lives, and the ecology of their communities at large.