by Forrest Cardamenis
Ann Hui’s career occupies a strange space. She has directed 28 features in 44 years, premiering a number of them at either the Berlin or Venice Film Festivals; at the same time, she has never won the West’s prestigious awards, having been chased out of Cannes’ Competition in 1983, never to return, by protests over Boat People’s (1983) critical depiction of Vietnam, and she is rarely distributed in the U.S. (Cinema Guild picked up A Simple Life (2011), eleven years and four films ago, while Criterion has recently released Boat People, but U.S. distribution for others is scant). Her films are sometimes overtly political, as with Ordinary Heroes (1999), the aforementioned Boat People, and its partner film, The Story of Woo Viet (1981). Others, like The Romance of Book and Sword (1987) and Visible Secret (2001) are genre films. Hui is too versatile and too prolific to be pinned down, labeled, or marketed but too prominent to be “discovered.”
Yet it is precisely these qualities that also clarify the specificity of Hui’s vision. Ordinary Heroes is a carefully researched paean for the Yau Ma Tei boat people, migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong who won amnesty for their children only to see their mothers deported. It is politically unapologetic, yet its non-linearity and willingness both to emphasize melodrama and pause its narrative to linger on a moment, such as a performance of La Internationale, demonstrate Hui’s commitment to the affective qualities of her stories and images. Love in a Fallen City (1984), conversely, sets a fictional romance against Japan’s invasion of the Second Sino-Japanese War. It introduces its characters in carefully choreographed long takes before making its way to a show-stopping depiction of Japan’s invasion dripping with excess that coincides with the precise moment the characters realize their love for one another. For Hui, life, love and politics are not only related but inseparable.
One of Hui’s more “uncharacteristic” films, her 1979 feature debut The Secret, a detective story based on a real-life double homicide, might at first glance throw off those primarily familiar with Hui’s historical work or docudrama—the two genres that account for most of her best-known work. Its score could have been pulled from a contemporaneous European or American horror film, and its abrupt cuts—both to bodies, and also matched on sound across scenes, as when a character drops a teacup in the film’s first scene—suggest something less precise and exacting than one would expect from the director of Love in a Fallen City. On the other hand, Hui’s later work is foreshadowed by her fixation on the color red, as well as her interest in a mentally unwell character and a pregnancy. The Secret does not emphasize its politics, but its tone sufficiently allegorizes its proceedings: both characters figure heavily into the film’s understanding of power structures, which elicit Hong Kong’s uneasy relationship with the mainland and eventual handover. As The Secret demonstrates, Hui’s brilliance lies, besides in her endlessly evocative mise-en-scene, in her ability to weave her concerns and interests into a diverse array of narratives such that she never has to pick between art and politics.
Of course, even a cursory glance at Hui’s Wikipedia page clarifies the magnitude of her success in Asia, where she is a mainstay at the Golden Horse and Hong Kong Film awards. As it turns out, her steady work is not a happy accident but a result of her success and acclaim. However underappreciated Hui may be in the English-speaking world, she is beloved on her home continent, and so she forces us to reflect on the borders—linguistic and otherwise—that still exist, even amid a global film industry and globalizing festival circuit, when we discuss “cinephilia.”
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