Archive - 11th Five Flavours Film Festival
Ann Hui: Between Hong Kong and the World
Celebrating her seventieth birthday in 2017, Ann Hui's longevity in an industry dominated by youth and the male gender makes her stand out not just in Hong Kong but in global circles as a dynamic female voice from a generation of postwar filmmakers. This tribute at Warsaw's Five Flavours Film Festival does justice to her contribution to world cinema by featuring a film from each decade of her distinguished career. In addition to illustrating the evolution of Hui's authorial vision, this selection chronicles the transformation of Hong Kong cinema from the rebellious energy of the New Wave to current contributions to mainland Chinese cinema.
Among the very first Hong Kong filmmakers to shoot in the People's Republic of China in the early 1980s, Hui has made films on both sides of the border for decades. Twenty years after Hong Kong's reversion to Chinese sovereignty, her oeuvre illustrates the dual "mainlandization" of Hong Kong and the "Hongkongization" of film in the People's Republic of China.i In looking at the threads that connect Hui's features across the decades, a distinct personal style favoring women's stories, temporal fragmentation, multi-layered visual compositions, extreme angles, amnesia, memory and trauma surfaces. However, beyond this unique vision, Hui's career also testifies to the importance of film networks from movements such as the Hong Kong New Wave to international festivals and studios, which serve as the connective tissue that allows transnational filmmakers such as Ann Hui to flourish.
Particularly for women working in an environment in which these networks too often operate as exclusive boys' clubs, Hui represents a cohort of film artists who were able to lead Hong Kong's industry out of the stagnation of a male-dominated apprenticeship system into a new era in which a university education (such as Ann Hui received at the University of Hong Kong where I currently work) and further studies in Europe and America gave them an edge. Hui and others who went on to make their first feature films in 1978 and 1979 navigated through the infancy of the colony's television industry under the tutelage of female producer Selina Chow, also an alumna of the English Department at HKU. Chow teamed up with another emerging female talent, Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang, to set up a film production company for Ann Hui's first feature THE SECRET (1979). In this film, Chang takes up sleuthing when the police falsely accuse the son of a neighbor of a grisly double-homicide. Hui's film inaugurated the Hong Kong New Wave, while, also opening doors for women in the industry. Working with scriptwriter Joyce Chan, Hui brought a female-centered investigation of a true-crime story to the screen in a fresh and dynamic, nonlinear telling of the tale, and women navigating between Chinese superstition and the failures of colonial modernity, exemplified by the police, in this case, emerge as a force not only within the film industry but in 1970s Hong Kong society generally.
With BOAT PEOPLE (1982) Ann Hui draws on connections established in her work for television, where she developed stories about Vietnam's refugees. Fleeing from the political and economic turmoil in unified Vietnam after 1975, many landed in Hong Kong as a site of first asylum, and Hui brought their stories to the small screen in BELOW THE LION ROCK: FROM VIETNAM (1979) and to film theaters in THE STORY OF WOO VIET (1981), starring Chow Yun-Fat. After the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war, the influx of refugees increased with many ethnic Chinese joining the ranks of former ARVN soldiers and their families as well as other American collaborators and Western sympathizers. An opportunity to be the first major Hong Kong feature film, along with the Jet Li-vehicle SHAOLIN TEMPLE (1982), to be filmed officially in the People's Republic of China (PRC) after the Cultural Revolution, presented itself. In order to film on Hainan Island, which resembled Vietnam, Hui received the approval of the PRC government with the understanding that the film would show China's enemy, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, in a negative light. Because the Hong Kong film industry relied heavily on the fervently anti-Communist KMT (Nationalist)-controlled film market in Taiwan at the time, any film, including BOAT PEOPLE, produced in mainland China could not be exhibited in the Republic of China. However, given Hui's scrupulous attention to the details of the tribulations of the refugees based on oral testimonies she had collected in Hong Kong, a message decidedly critical of the Communist system asserts itself on screen, and the authoritarianism of the Vietnamese government too easily morphs into the film's actual location within the People's Republic of China. This particular (mis)reading of BOAT PEOPLE, in fact, still resonates with Hong Kong viewers because of the anxieties haunting the territory's change from British to Chinese sovereignty.
The time was ripe for a film that could talk about these feelings allegorically. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher went to Beijing to meet with Deng Xiaoping about the status of Hong Kong, and she emerged, stumbling, and presumably shaken to announce the negotiations that would lead to the 1984 Joint Declaration and the "one-country, two systems" policy that would take the territory from its colonial status through a transitional period beginning with the 1997 Handover ending in complete integration into mainland China in 2047. Because of Thatcher's visit and the fact that so many residents in the colony had left China or Vietnam for political or religious as well as economic reasons meant that BOAT PEOPLE hit the screens in Hong Kong as more of a dystopic parable of future Chinese Communist rule than a nationalistic treatise maligning Vietnamese upstarts who had dared to interfere with the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge in the former French colony of Indochina. However, even though this third installment in what has become known as Hui's Vietnam Trilogy now seems to say more about Hong Kong-PRC relations than about the aftermath of the end of Vietnam's French, American, and Chinese wars, it still ruffled feathers at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983. Pulled from competition under pressure from the French who were trying to improve ties with their former colony, BOAT PEOPLE still screened, and the international film press picked up on the story of a compelling film directed by an important new talent from Hong Kong. Even with a cold reception from the festival and distribution problems in the Chinese-speaking world, Hui established ties with mainland China, the international film festival circuit, and the world film press that still serve her career.
SUMMER SNOW (1995), THE WAY WE ARE (2008), and A SIMPLE LIFE (2011) represent the decades that follow. From the end of the twentieth century through the millennium into the twenty-first century, these films chronicle Hong Kong in the years leading up to the 1997 Handover and in the first two decades of the existence of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). As the city changes, Hui has chosen to look at the territory through the lives of its aging women and the ways in which they navigate the generational divide characteristic of fast-paced Hong Kong. Domestic details and the quotidian lives of the HKSAR's residents unite the films in their depiction of working, middle, and upper-class households in these female-centered features.
SUMMER SNOW's Chinese title, WOMAN AT 40, describes its middle-aged heroine caught between the challenges of caring for a widowed father-in-law in the late stages of Alzheimer's disease and the demands of raising a son while maintaining a career in a rapidly globalizing, digitized workplace. Josephine Siao, a beloved local child actress, whose career slowed as she became increasingly deaf, stars, and the performance won her a top acting honor at the 45th Berlin International Film Festival—also solidifying Hui's standing on the European festival circuit. Roy Chiao portrays her father-in-law, a former KMT soldier, who, suffering from dementia, relives the war years fighting the Japanese. Amnesia conveniently erases the Cold War, and his death puts the family's politically incorrect political ties behind them before the 1997 change of sovereignty. The English title of the film captures the contradictory feelings associated with the Handover as a sense of optimism that enterprising Hong Kong people can handle even the most unlikely conditions vies with an acknowledgement that the future under Chinese rule may be rather cold. Hui finds a way to show the truth of the old man's vision in SUMMER SNOW, and she frames the widower and his daughter-in-law in a high-angle two shot as they look up at white falling blossoms snowing down in the heat of summer. The poetic visual serves as a metaphor for Hong Kong's colonial end and the promise as well as the uncertainty of a seemingly out-of-joint seasonal cycle expressed as "one country, two systems" in the territory's legal framework.
THE WAY WE ARE also revolves around a middle-aged woman raising a son who forms a close bond with a senior citizen. However, in this case, Kwai (Pai Hei-Ching) struggles stocking shelves in a supermarket, and her domestic situation as a working-class widow contrasts sharply with the solidly middle-class life of the middle-aged heroine of SUMMER SNOW. Kwai initially takes pity on the older woman Granny (Chan Lai-Wan), who moves into her public housing estate. However, the two rapidly form a strong bond across the generational divide, since both have been marginalized by upwardly mobile families that have little use for women past their prime. Kwai, for example, cannot bring herself to visit her ailing mother in the hospital, since she suffers the shame of being left behind as a former factory worker whose earnings enabled her brothers to receive an education that allowed them to move up economically while leaving her in dead-end menial labor. Similarly, Granny attempts to forge a connection with her grandson; however, her son-in-law has little use for the old woman, since she serves as a reminder of his deceased first wife. As the traditional Confucian patriarchy fails these women, they forge new bonds based on class and gender rather than blood ties. The film's concluding scene features the traditional festival celebrating family unity during the Mid-Autumn full moon. Hui depicts it as a community event that brings neighbors out into the open night air with their lanterns and mooncakes symbolically breaking through the walls that isolate them in cramped public housing units.
Set in Tin Shui Wai, a satellite town constructed to house Hong Kong's working poor, THE WAY WE ARE's close-knit community belies the impoverished district's reputation as a "city of sadness," because of the number of homicides, suicides, drug deaths, and related crimes with which it has been associated over the years. Often a first stop for new immigrants from across the border hoping for a better life in the HKSAR, Tin Shui Wai does not always lend itself to stories of community solidarity and trust. In fact, Ann Hui uses a realist aesthetic shot on location with digital video technology in THE WAY WE ARE as a warm up for her bigger budget feature, NIGHT AND FOG (2009), which followed.
The two films serve as a diptych dedicated to Tin Shui Wai, which anchors the Chinese titles of both films. However, it must be remembered that THE WAY WE ARE is purely fiction that uses an observational style to give a truthful impression of the daily rituals and understated emotions it shows. NIGHT AND FOG does the opposite. Based on meticulously researched events, the film draws on the star power of Simon Yam, a highly stylized structure inspired by CITIZEN KANE, and the melodramatic excesses of a harrowing true tale of a mainland bride terrorized and finally murdered with her two young daughters by a psychotic husband. The women in THE WAY WE ARE may be marginalized by their families, but they do not fall victim to violence as do the women in NIGHT AND FOG. Although Hui sets much of the latter film in a battered woman's shelter, women's bonds fail, in this case, to protect them against not only deadly domestic violence but also the truly criminal neglect of the territory's social welfare system where immigrant women must stay in abusive marriages in order to keep their families intact in Hong Kong. Hui references Alain Resnais' NIGHT AND FOG (1955) in both the English and Chinese titles of the film deliberately, since this film insists on a symbolic connection between Hong Kong's social institutions that enable domestic violence to continue with Nazi concentration camps in which victims simply disappear quietly into the "night and fog" of Hitler's extermination program.
Partially set in Sichuan province and the border town of Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese connections in NIGHT AND FOG point to the growing importance of Hui's ties to the PRC after Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA) in 2003 made it easier and more lucrative to work across the border. These mainland links become even more apparent in A SIMPLE LIFE (2011), which self-reflexively highlights the film's production circumstances as part of its plot. Based on the experiences of film producer Roger Lee Yan-Lam (played by actor Andy Lau on screen), A SIMPLE LIFE narrates the tale of his relationship with his elderly housekeeper Chung Chun-Tao (Ah Tao/Peach), played by actress Deanie Ip, as she transitions from domestic service to a nursing home because of a debilitating stroke.
A SIMPLE LIFE makes the current reality of Hong Kong's film business explicit on screen as it offers glimpses of Roger's professional activities taking him on extended business trips to Beijing, putting him in the position of helping to trick a financier into giving his production more money, poring over balance sheets with a shady investor, threatening to shut down production on a film if a missing $100,000 does not reappear in the accounts, and attending the premiere of a movie, explaining that the rapidly dwindling audience indicates that the film is a flop, since the guests cannot bear to face the cast and crew after the screening. Given Andy Lau, who plays Roger, also serves as executive producer on the project, scenes featuring him negotiating with actual mainland Chinese executives such as Yu Dong, Bona Group's head, self-reflexively highlight the link between film financing and the onscreen narrative. Andy Lau, who had made his theatrical film debut in BOAT PEOPLE, now hires Ann Hui as director for this project. Lau had also previously starred opposite Deanie Ip in THE UNWRITTEN LAW (1985), which spawned two sequels. The chemistry between the leads can be felt on screen, and the Chinese title of the film, "Elder Sister Tao" (Tao Jie), underscores the fictive kinship and intimacy between the elderly maid and her middle-aged employer. Ip's touching performance won her the prestigious Volpi Cup at the 68th Venice International Film Festival, where A SIMPLE LIFE had its premiere. In addition to Andy Lau and Deanie Ip, the film features New Wave director Tsui Hark and cameo appearances by other industry stalwarts including Sammo Hung, Anthony Wong, Chapman To, Lawrence Lau and emerging mainland Chinese director Ning Hao, with brief appearances by Raymond Chow, Roberta Chow, John Sham, Gordon Lam, Stanley Kwan, Andrew Lau, and Angelababy.
A SIMPLE LIFE, then, brings together the three major networks which define Ann Hui's career; i.e., her New Wave industry peers, mainland financing for Hong Kong-PRC co-productions, and the international film festival circuit exemplified by Venice. In addition to the Vopli Cup, A SIMPLE LIFE secured various awards including the La Navicella Award (for "human values"), the Equal Opportunities Award, and Honorable Mention for the Roman Catholic SIGNIS award. Thus, Ann Hui benefits from an elaborate industrial and artistic network that links mainland Chinese money to Hong Kong expertise and European cultural capital through the film festival circuit.
In A SIMPLE LIFE, Hui continues her authorial interest in both aging and social institutions. In SUMMER SNOW, a sizeable part of the plot revolves around the search for a proper facility for Alzheimer's patients, and the film indicts Hong Kong society for leaving the burden of elder care on the shoulders of the territory's overworked women. From the moment the ambulance transports Ah Tao to the hospital after her initial stroke to her hospital deathbed in the film's penultimate scene before her funeral, A SIMPLE LIFE similarly offers a detailed picture of the ways in which the elderly move through Hong Kong's system of institutionalized care. As Ah Tao moves outside the domestic sphere, her world expands, and director Hui uses this opportunity to explore the operation of the nursing home as a for-profit institution as well as a microcosm of Hong Kong society in much the same way she explores the lives of working women in relation to familial as well as social institutions in both THE WAY WE ARE and NIGHT AND FOG. Using meticulously framed shots through doorways, windows, and mirrors, Hui shows these women trapped in public housing, community shelters, hospitals, nursing homes, offices, and other urban spaces in which they suffer in ways dictated by their gender.
Again as a woman trapped by circumstances beyond her control. Deanie Ip delivers another stellar performance in Ann Hui's most recent feature, OUR TIME WILL COME (2017). She plays the mother of an underground resistance fighter during the Sino-Japanese war who sacrifices herself for the cause. In an early scene, Hui skillfully defines Ip's character by showing her taking out three fancy biscuits and putting one carefully back when she decides not to include a treat for herself as she uses the rationed sweets to show hospitality to her refugee lodgers. Hui has an eye for domestic details, and the emphasis on food, hospitality, and female sacrifice resonates with scenes in THE WAY WE ARE (mushrooms), NIGHT AND FOG (chili peppers) and A SIMPLE LIFE (ox tongue). Roger Lee returns, too, to produce OUR TIME WILL COME under the aegis of the Bona production label, which also brought A SIMPLE LIFE to the screen. Director Hui solidifies her connections with the Chinese and European New Waves by employing Mary Stephen, who had worked with French auteur Eric Rohmer, as editor, and Nelson Yu Lik-wai, Jia Zhanke's longtime cinematographer, as director of photography, in this feature.
OUR TIME WILL COME picks up on themes Hui explored in her previous film, THE GOLDEN ERA (2014), which closed the Venice International Film Festival that year. In both cases, Hui worked closely with mainland Chinese talent to celebrate historical figures associated with the pre-1949 leftwing intelligentsia. THE GOLDEN ERA chronicles the life of celebrated author Xiao Hong, who died in Hong Kong during the Japanese Occupation, and OUR TIME WILL COME appears to pick up the story as the film's central protagonists, Fang Lan (Zhou Xun) and her mother (Deanie Ip), help writer Mao Dun (Guo Tao) and his wife escape from Japanese-occupied Hong Kong. In addition to historical time and place, the film makes use of a technique Hui employs in THE GOLDEN ERA of interviewing fictional characters in the film to frame the narrative as a series of flashbacks. In this case, Ben, played as an old man by Hong Kong veteran actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai, tells the story of his involvement with the East River (Dongjiang) Brigade as a boy, to Ann Hui, making a cameo appearance collecting Ben's mock oral history.
Before the Occupation, Ben studied with the young teacher Fang, and he remains loyal to her as he highlights her contribution to the resistance. While other mainland Chinese films celebrating the struggle against the Japanese feature male protagonists, Hui's films spotlight the role played by women and the impact of the Occupation on their daily lives and loves. Hong Kong tends to be sidelined in other historical dramas as well, so OUR TIME WILL COME and THE GOLDEN ERA bring the territory under the Japanese out of the shadows in much the same way as her earlier Shaw Brothers film, LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY (1984), and Ang Lee's LUST, CAUTION (2007), both based on Eileen Chang stories, do.
Established film auteurs tend to weave their own personal stories into their film corpus and Ann Hui follows this general rule. For example, the semi-autobiographical SONG OF THE EXILE (1990) features Maggie Cheung as Hueyin, a Hong Kong resident recently returned from studying filmmaking in London, who must renegotiate her strained relationship with her Japanese-born mother, who had married her Chinese father during the liberation of Manchuria. Because of this personal relationship to the history of Japan and China, Hui often returns to the war era that provided the backdrop for her parents' romance, and she shows considerable compassion for those caught up in the political vicissitudes of the period. OUR TIME WILL COME, for example, shows a Japanese commander and Fang's boyfriend, operating as a mole in enemy headquarters, bonding during literary conversations about the Song Dynasty poet Su Dongpo (Su Shi), and the film does not dwell on imperialist atrocities to fan Chinese nationalism. Rather, guerrilla hero Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) takes out a collaborator with an adept knife to the throat or a volley of well-targeted bullets in scenes that punctuate more introspective moments in the film. Nationalist jingoism finds little expression in Hui's oeuvre even though she has contributed to several films commemorating the end of Hong Kong's colonial status, including Xie Jin's epic OPIUM WAR (1997), made to celebrate the Handover.
OUR TIME WILL COME marks twenty years of Hong Kong's existence as a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, and the focus on a shared history of resistance that links the territory with the mainland serves this purpose.
However, Hui's interests run deeper, and she returns again to mothers and daughters, romances and weddings, female friendships, filial obligations, as well as the quotidian struggles to keep food on the table and families together. Hui uses her position as director to frame history through women's points of view, their memories and experiences, and dissect society and its institutions as they shape female experience.
From THE SECRET to OUR TIME WILL COME, Hui's women take action in the public sphere without losing their connection to the private, domestic realm. As a director with strong cross-border ties and an understanding of the Chinese diaspora, Hui makes films about people within living in Hong Kong, mainland China, and throughout the diaspora with equal confidence. The pictures she paints of connected, passionate women fighting for justice for their neighbors, their families, and themselves could be a portrait of herself as a film artist. Ann Hui's own career as a consummate film professional and globally lauded auteur enables her to tell stories about marginalized and neglected women that transcend the borders of Hong Kong and speak to people in Poland and around the world.