It would be a stretch to say The Fruit Hunters is the weirdest movie Bill Pullman has ever been in, but it might feature the weirdest appearance by the actor. And yet he’s just himself, apparently a fruit-obsessed man with an orchard in the backyard of his Hollywood home and — this is credited as being revealed in this very documentary — no sense of smell (which is pretty noteworthy in a food doc given the link between smell and taste). Maybe “weird” is not the correct word. That sounds sort of negative. “Strange” is better, if only because it’s not well known that Pullman has such a hobby in rare tree-borne delicacies. Or that it’s a hobby at all.
The unknown is typically a great subject for nonfiction films, and this is no exception. How often do we think about the endangerment of fruit varieties? We barely even think about fruit at all, and filmmaker Yung Chang (Up the Yangtze; China Heaveyweight) makes the point early on that we take this type of food for granted — there’s a joke about it growing on trees there somewhere (in the thought, if not directly in the film). And we tend to just consider the supermarket, still-life and basket basics, such as bananas (specifically the Cavendish, I now understand), apples, oranges, grapes, pears and cherries. Maybe pineapples. Who knew there were things called marang, which is said to taste like marshmallow; ice cream bean, which is actually more like cotton candy; finger limes, which are called “citrus caviar”; durians, which smell absolutely terrible but taste absolutely wonderful; and egg fruits, which look like yellow hearts when sliced in half?
Anyone could make a simple documentary about people who travel the world in pursuit of fresh fruits, though, just as anyone could follow birders or a nation’s relationship to insects or the eclectic attendees of any kind of convention. Yet, not surprisingly, Chang has made something special that is not only very interesting but also incredibly beautiful. Docs about food should have the obligatory money shots, and sure enough the cinematography here makes these things look scrumdiddlyumptious. And/or absolutely bizarre. There’s stuff in this film that seems invented by Dr. Seuss. But Mother Nature is clearly more imaginative than any children’s book author. I haven’t salivated this much during a movie since Jiro Dreams of Sushi. And then, I was already a sushi lover; here, I hadn’t previously been all that into fruit.
I am always into trivia, however, and The Fruit Hunters has plenty for the craving. In addition to introducing us to rare natural delicacies, throughout the film Chang offers short dramatized pieces illustrating the history of the Bing cherry, the McIntosh apple, the Hass avocado and more. I thought this must be what a movie produced by “Mental_Floss” magazine would look like. At first these scenes come off as a bit corny and rather odd in style compared to the rest of the doc (especially since they begin way before an over the top Pullman-centered dream sequence — not a common thing in a doc, of course), but they’re fascinating enough and playfully informative. The glossy asides fit well with the general peculiarity of the subject matter as well as with the ever-present whimsically dramatic score by regular Chang collaborators Olivier Alary and Johannes Malfatti. You might think the inclusion of curious factoids like these were part of the film’s being based on a book, Adam Gollner’s “The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce and Obsession,” and you’d be correct, though in the book they’re not quite as in-depth. There, most of these back stories are merely referenced by Gollner together in a single paragraph.
The book meanwhile features a number of lengthier anecdotes and encyclopedic info that either aren’t in the film or are just touched on briefly, and it doesn’t follow Pullman and his crusade, which makes The Fruit Hunters a great nonfiction adaptation. It’s faithful to the main topics and retains the most significant parts but is expanded to consist of freshly experiential moments and narratives. Not that the story of a community attempting to turn public land beneath the Hollywood Sign into a sustainable fruit orchard would be that interesting without a movie star leading the effort. Really, anything in the doc resembling part of an issue film is more about the issue itself being engrossing, because fruit species extinction is a problem so few realize occurs. Chang never seems to be trying to turn us onto the cause so much as show its existence. We’re encouraged to appreciate biodiversity, yet not necessarily for any reason other than the alternative is boring and limited and means we may never get to try a water apple.
The only problematic issue is that Chang’s own voiceover narration is all wrong for the film. It’s personal yet impersonal at the same time, subjective and in the first-person but cinematically anonymous. It’s enough to turn viewers off that he immediately starts in ahead of the credits with a soft-spoken statement about being aroused by fruit. I’ve read that he originally was going to have Pullman do the narration but then fell into wanting to bring himself in more, which is similar to what happened in Gollner’s writing of the book. That’s fine, but the motivation doesn’t come through and we never get that Chang was an ignoramus about fruit who was seduced and ultimately obsessed through making the film, mainly because we never really know or care who Chang is within the context of the film. As much as onscreen first-person documentary is played out, in this case it would have been better to see Chang or not hear him — unless he provided more voice of God style narration.
That aside, all in all The Fruit Hunters is a successful and enjoyable doc, especially as new territory for a director who tends to give us more seriously moving films primarily set in China. And Chang makes it visually appealing — not just by falling on the beauty of the nature itself, either — to the point that even when he goes a little overboard with the silly fantasy sequences we can at least appreciate that he’s aiming for a cinematic work that both translates and compliments its literary source material. It’s a fun documentary, and that’s a treat almost as rare as some of the exotic fruit it showcases.
The Upside: It’s a really great looking documentary for its kind, and while that shouldn’t be a big deal, it is; Pullman being even nerdier than you’d think; so much new knowledge about familiar and unfamiliar fruits to behold.
The Downside: Chang’s narration; the Hollywood Orchard storyline isn’t very compelling; you can’t reach through the screen and try the strange fruits.
On the Side: Yung Chang also worked on the exceptional 2009 film Last Train Home as an editor.
The Fruit Hunters hits limited theaters May 16th and May 18th.