Always Herself, Always Hong Kong

Over a forty-year career, Ann Hui has produced a body of work that can stand on its own as an organic system. She may not be as internationally well known as Wong Kar-wai or Johnnie To, but she is revered in Hong Kong and beyond, having been recognised as Best Director six times at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Among her contemporaries of the Hong Kong New Wave, she occupies a position somewhere between Tsui Hark, who adapts smoothly to the mainstream industry, and Patrick Tam and Allen Fong, whose insistence on auteur-style explorations leave them definitively outside the system. Hui has never been a commercially successful director, but she is a versatile filmmaker whose works exhibit diversity in scale and subject, and always follow from her creative instincts.

Ann Hui admits that she is neither a stylist nor a cerebral auteur. She attaches far more importance to creative impulse than to viewer reception and the market. Perhaps it is for this reason that her career has had highs and lows, and that reactions to her work, whether good or bad, often take her by surprise. For instance, she knew full well that making Boat People (1982), would result in her being banned from the Taiwanese market. But the film was a critical and commercial success, because it inadvertently struck a chord with Hong Kong’s unease over the 1997 return to China. In contrast, the ambitious historical drama The Romance of Book and Sword and its sequel, Princess Fragrance (both 1987), form an intentional—albeit oblique—commentary on Hong Kong’s impending handover, and were commercial flops. Hong Kong cinema and its audience underwent deep changes in the mid-1980s, and the two historical films were completely disconnected from the consumerist and escapist mentality of the public. Following a low point in her career, Hui made Summer Snow (1995), which portrays with a comedic touch the optimistic spirit of a housewife burdened with multiple obligations. It was a surprise hit, due to the audience’s readiness to identify with the main character, just two years before the handover. When the future again seemed uncertain for her in the era of co-productions between Hong Kong and mainland China, her low-budget, high-resolution television movie The Way We Are (2008)—with its reflection on Hong Kong history and identity—was recognised as a success.

Ann Hui always puts herself into her work, and it is easy to find recurring themes and styles across her films. For instance, she often creates memorable female characters in collaboration with strong performers. Josephine Siao (playing the housewife in Summer Snow) and Deanie Ip (playing an elderly maid in A Simple Life) won Best Actress at the Berlinale and the Venice Film Festival, respectively. Siqin Gaowa, playing a Shanghai auntie sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution in The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, and Paw Hee-ching, as a middle-aged single mother living in a Hong Kong public housing estate in The Way We Are, gave career-defining performances. Also notable are the sense of rootlessness in Hui’s early works (such as The Story of Woo Viet, Boat People, and Song of the Exile) and mature sensibilities in her later films (including Summer Snow, July Rhapsody, The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, and A Simple Life). Reflecting on her experience growing up in the colonial days of Hong Kong (Song of the Exile and As Time Goes By) on one hand, and addressing the history of social movement (Starry Is the Night and Ordinary Heroes) and the lives of ordinary citizens (Summer Snow and The Way We Are) on the other, she has never strayed from a core theme: Who is Hong Kong? What is Hong Kong?

Ann Hui has moved continuously between the commercial and the artistic, between genre films and literary adaptations, and between mainstream work and marginal production, always seeking a way forward in the gaps and crevices. One could argue that this flexibility and persistence also characterise Hong Kong. In that sense, calling Ann Hui the most Hong Kong of Hong Kong directors would hardly be an exaggeration.

Li Cheuk-to
Curator, Hong Kong Film and Media, M+