Ann Hui Capsule Reviews
The Secret (1979) — July 29, 2019
In America this would have been followed by at least two more imitation movies where Sylvia Chang solves spooky murders, of declining quality and increasing morbidity, directed by men of course and not Ann Hui, whose debut this was. But they weren’t in America and things turned out much better for both them and us.
The Spooky Bunch (1980) — July 31, 2019
As far as I could tell, a fun, goofy ghost comedy with Josephine Siao being silly and Kenny Bee not doing much while they and a theatrical troupe are harassed by a gang of deceased soldiers and a dead actress named Cat Shit. The version I watched is a dub of a really bad VHS. Here’s hoping it gets restored sometime soon like Ann Hui’s The Secret and The Story of Woo Viet have been.
Of the eleven films Kenny Bee starred in in 1980, one was this, Ann Hui’s second film and another was Cute Girl, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s first film. The star of Hui’s first film, Sylvia Chang, also starred in Edward Yang’s first film. And Bee and Chang starred together in Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues. Point is: the Hong Kong New Wave and the New Taiwan Cinema were a lot more interrelated than is generally believed.
The Story of Woo Viet (1981) — August 2, 2019
Oh hey here’s Ann Hui making a Heroic Bloodshed film with Chow Yun-fat five years before A Better Tomorrow. The crew is packed with luminaries of the New Wave and Second Wave: Stanley Kwan (assistant director, sharing the title card with Hui), Tony Au (art direction), Ching Siu-tung (stunts), and Teddy Robin (producer) assisting behind the scenes; Chow, Cherie Chung, Cora Miao and Lo Lieh on-screen.
Chow plays a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee fleeing the fall of Saigon. He washes up in Hong Kong, where he meets up with pen pal Cora Miao, who helps him get a fake passport (he had to kill a couple Vietnamese spies in the refugee camp) to get to the US via Japan. But he gets sidetracked in Manilla when sex traffickers kidnap Cherie Chung (a fellow refugee with whom he’s struck up a relationship, poor Cora). So he hangs around the Philippines doing crime jobs for the boss while trying to earn enough money to pay for his and Chung’s freedom. Helping him out is Lo Lieh, another hitman Hong Konger who got lost in Manilla on the way somewhere else and is now drinking himself into oblivion.
So all the elements of Chow’s late 80s persona are there: the breathlessly efficient man of violence with a soft heart who must balance two romances (one with a woman, one with a man) while navigating the impossible demands of a world where law and order is a matter of violence rather than honor.
It doesn’t have Woo’s intoxicating blur of music and color and action though, nor Ringo Lam’s growling angst. It’s both more realistic and more melancholy. The fights aren’t electric, they’re as brutal and sad as they are inevitable.
Love in a Fallen City (1984) — December 1, 2013
My wife’s verdict: not sure if she’d let Chow Yun-fat take her to the Malayan jungle, but would seriously consider becoming his kept woman.
Romance of Book and Sword (1987) — August 3, 2019
Looks like it might be a bona fide King Hu-influenced wuxia from the mid-80s, except with the spirituality replaced by political conspiracy (with the Red Flower Society learning that the Qing emperor is actually Han and trying to enlist him to overthrow his own Empire).
I can’t really say for sure though because as far as I can tell it only exists in a crummy VCD rip.
Princess Fragrance (1987) — August 4, 2019
The second part of Ann Hui’s adaptation of Louis Cha’s Romance of Book and Sword. Released just a month later in 1987, these are really two halves of a single movie. If they ever get restored to something like presentable condition (a bad VCD version is all they’ve got), they should be smooshed back together, like A Touch of Zen has been. And man does this film need the deluxe restoration. It might be a masterpiece.
Anyway, this half focuses on the Red Flower Society leader’s attempts to save the Wei (a Muslim people on the western edge of the empire) from assault by Manchurian troops. Along the way he falls in love with the daughter of the Wei ruler, who smells great because she’s been eating flowers since she was a kid (hence “the fragrant princess”). There’s some cool action, again more in the King Hu vein than the then-dominant Ching Siu-tung/Tsui Hark style (Hui had been an assistant to Hu in the 70s). But mostly it’s a bunch of cool music and shots of the Chinese landscape (it was one of the first big joint productions with the Mainland, following Lau Kar-leung’s Martial Arts of Shaolin). There’s also a mini-detour into the past for a legend about a badass princess trapped in a Lost City.
The first half was about the Red Flower leader trying to convince his secret brother, the Qing Emperor, to help him overthrow the Manchurians and restore ethnic Han rule. It’s full of hope and ideals of just government. In the second, all that falls away as the oppressive weight of China, its history, its landscape, the tragic momentum of systems beyond human control, comes crashing down around our heroes.
Song of the Exile (1990) — April 27, 2014
Ann Hui’s semi-autobiographical film about a young woman (Maggie Cheung) returning home to Hong Kong on the occasion of her sister’s wedding. Cheung’s been away at school in England for some time, and the return trip, and subsequent disagreements with her mother, trigger a series of flashbacks. She recalls growing up with her grandparents in Macao, her mother a phantom, disagreeable presence. Over the course of the film, Cheung finally learns more about her mom (like the fact that she’s Japanese(!)) and begins to understand her a little bit better.
It’s a lovely, nuanced portrait of two women and two generations. The mother’s, caught up in wartime dislocations and tragedies, and Hui’s own, the post-war generation of kids disconnected from their roots by war and emigration, a disconnection that forms the background of so many works of her fellow filmmakers. Scripted by frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang collaborator Wu Nien-jen, the film is the point of overlap between the Hong Kong and Taiwanese New Waves, both cinemas obsessed with the history of China in the 20th Century and the shockwaves its collapse sent out across the generations, both physically in that so many of the New Wavers were refugees or the children of refugees, and psychologically, because a century filled with that many crazy traumas is enough to drive anyone nuts.
I only wish this was available in better form. The DVD I rented was apparently a copy of a VHS TV print: cropped to 1.33, fuzzy and almost illegibly black and blue tinged, with a blue fairy/Smurfette cartoon that floats across the top of the screen every 15 minutes or so. I bet it looks great in its proper form, though.
The Stunt Woman (1996) — April 14, 2016
For the first two-thirds of its running time, this is a very cool semi-biographical film (a spiritual sequel to Mabel Cheung’s terrific Painted Faces) with Michelle Yeoh as a Hong Kong stuntwoman who first gains acceptance in Sammo Hung’s crew, then leaves it behind for domesticity with a businessman (as Yeoh herself did when she briefly abandoned acting to marry magnate Dickson Poon). Full of loving looks at the mechanics of shooting wire stunts (Ching Siu-tung was the action choreographer) and the familial camaraderie of a stunt troop, with Sammo as the avuncular leader, negotiating with producers, directors and the gangsters that put up the money for production. The third section reunites Yeoh with the crew, only for everything to fall apart in a bizarre jolt of Triad violence, sending Yeoh on the run to the Mainland with Sammo’s precocious tough guy son. There’s a schematic idea at work here (Yeoh plays three roles: professional, girlfriend, mother), but the transition is really sloppy, like the last third comes out of an entirely different movie (it’s even introduced by a title card where the first two sections are not). This was apparently because production had to be rushed following a serious back injury Yeoh suffered doing one of the stunts (which we see over the end credits), which adds a weird meta-twist to the whole endeavor, as the film itself mirrors the hasty reliance on generic conventions and editing shorthand that its characters rely on in their movies. The effect is disconcerting, but not entirely unpleasant.
Eighteen Springs (1997) – May 1, 2023
I still adore Love in a Fallen City, but if you wanted to say this was Ann Hui's best Eileen Chang adaptation, I wouldn't argue with you.
Ordinary Heroes (1999) — January 21, 2020
Ann Hui’s Ordinary Heroes, winner of the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Picture, is a film about activism, about struggling to change a system in spite of overwhelming odds and the near-certainty of defeat. At its heart is Anthony Wong, playing an Italian priest based on real-life activist Franco Mella. He lives and works among Hong Kong’s Yau Ma Tei boat people, a community of fishermen who live on boats and have questionable citizenship status in British Hong Kong, despite the fact that they’ve lived there for more than a century. The film is mostly about the struggle for these men and later their wives (many of whom are from the Mainland and therefore raise even more complicated citizenship questions) to find decent public housing on land, as overcrowding and pollution has made the harbor in which they live and work uninhabitable. Giving the movie its romantic spine is the story of two kids who grow up around the movement, played by Lee Kang-sheng and Rachel Lee (sometimes billed as Loletta Lee, as she was in Tsui Hark’s Shanghai Blues and Patrick Tam and Wong Kar-wai’s Final Victory). There’s a weird framing story, with Rachel suffering from amnesia in the present and suddenly regaining her memories, which lead to the flashbacks that tell the story of the movement. It makes sense conceptually — post-Handover Hong Kong needing to remember its history of activism and protest — but dramatically it’s kind of silly. It is, however, extremely cool to see Lee Kang-sheng outside of a Tsai Ming-liang movie. He acts and talks just like a normal person!
Jade Goddess of Mercy (2003) — August 13, 2014
Ann Hui’s Running on Karma.
The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt (2006) — August 12, 2014
Nice to see Chow Yun-fat carrying on the tradition of Hong Kong stars dressing in ridiculous clothes well into his 50s. The only difference is that now they’re ridiculous old man clothes. Of course, in the end he walks off-screen twirling his duster onto his shoulders, and I’ll be damned if he isn’t still one of the coolest guys on the planet.
Few films I’ve seen capture so well the split in contemporary China between the cities and the country. There’s a sequence, near the end of the film, silent but for Joe Hisaishi’s delicately lovely score, where the eponymous aunt (Siqin Gaowa, who was the third part of the starring triumvirate in Stanley Kwan's 1989 Full Moon in New York, with Sylvia Chang and Maggie Cheung), a woman in her late 50s, is leaving her beloved Shanghai to return to her family in Anshan (director Ann Hui’s hometown). She had left them behind years before, but now, after falling victim to a series of scams and being confronted by her estranged daughter (the radiant-as-always Zhao Wei), she’s going back to Manchuria. As she rides away, she watches the lights and skyscrapers and marvels of the city. The camera pulls away, high over an interchange, streetlights and headlights merging into a glorious circle, like something out of Playtime. The colors slowly drain away to black and white and the film cuts to Anshan, cold, gray, industrial and desolate. It’s heart-breaking, but there’s a giant moon there too.
My Way (2012) — October 4, 2012
Francis Ng plays a transgender woman about to go in for an operation. We see her going out to the movies, hanging out with her friends, and arguing with her ex-wife. There’s a brief flashback to their fight after she figures out her situation, and so a very real sense of relief and joy when the wife shows up after the operation to wish her well. The subject is an under-discussed one in the Chinese-speaking world, even more so than it is herein the US. But director Ann Hui manages to tell this simple, humane story with warmth and beauty.
The Golden Era (2014) — September 30, 2014
Ann Hui’s bio-epic about 1930s writer Xiao Hong is long, beautiful, and not quite exactly what you’d expect. The only sign of Hui’s usual twisting of expectations is in the film’s narration, with witness interviews in the style of Reds, except the witnesses are played by the same actors portraying those characters in the film proper. Unlike Stanley Kwan’s Centre Stage (a film to which this has been compared, not entirely without reason), the actors never comment about the events as themselves (as also, for example, in Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris 1871)), but always remain in character. It’s an ingenious solution to the difficulty in recreating the life of someone who died young, leaving little in the way of personal history. It effectively captures the ways in which Xiao Hong the person is as much a memory in the lives of the people she met as she has been for the later generations who have discovered her only through her writings (which appear to be exceptionally beautiful tales of misery). But Hui pretty much plays it straight. Only once do the narrational accounts differ, and while Tang Wei’s performance does have some notable shifts in tone, there wasn’t a pattern to the changes that I was able to discern (with one narrator remembering her as happy and jubilant, another as morose, all at the same time, for example). Rather than foreground her experiments, Hui seems content to let her above-average prestige picture play itself out in heart-wrenching yet familiar terms.
Our Time Will Come (2017) — December 12, 2017
Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come follows a cell of Chinese resistance to the occupying Japanese in Hong Kong during World War II. Eddie Peng plays a dashing guerrilla leader, first shepherding leftist intellectuals out of the city and into the countryside, then the recipient of information smuggled out from an informant within Japanese headquarters (Wallace Huo) though a series of intermediaries, all of whom happen to be women. Zhou Xun plays the main conduit, a school teacher who joins the resistance, along with Jessie Li as a young girl working as a secretary for the Japanese and Deanie Ip, as Zhou’s mother, who provides warm meals for passing agents and eventually takes on a mission herself. More traditionally a World War II movie than her last film, The Golden Era, which filtered the upheavals of the time through the life of a novelist (played by Tang Wei), told out of sequence and with multiple Reds-style talking heads, but Our Time Will Come nonetheless has some modernist touches. It too is narrated, in modern day interviews with a former soldier played by Tony Leung Ka-fai, and we only gradually learn how all the characters fit together in their chain of espionage, Hui trusting us to follow the logic of her editing rather than simply spelling everything out in the script. But the film is primarily one of suspense and war-time heroism, an old-fashioned thriller by one of the great directors of our time.
Love After Love (2020) – January 28, 2022
Love After Love is director Ann Hui’s third adaptation of a story by Eileen Chang, following 1984’s Love in a Fallen City and 1997’s Eighteen Springs. I haven’t seen the latter, but Love in a Fallen City is one of my favorite of her films, a lush romantic drama that revels in the small moments and interplay between its charismatic stars Chow Yun-fat and Cora Miao, relegating most of the plot to conversational asides in an almost perverse manner. So Love After Love, despite the middling reviews it has received since it first premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the fall of 2020, was a film I expected to enjoy quite a bit. And I did, sort of. It’s a kind of fascinating failure, a beautiful film that just doesn’t feel right and I can’t quite pinpoint exactly why.
In design the film is impeccable: gorgeous images (DP Christopher Doyle, working with Hui for the first time, which is unbelievable but true) of gorgeous settings and costumes (by legendary costume designer, the late Emi Wada) peopled by gorgeous actors. Ma Shichun (Soul Mate, The Shadow Play) plays Weilong, a girl from Shanghai who is finishing up her studies in Hong Kong and needs to move in with her aunt (Faye Yu, from John Woo’s misbegotten two-part epic The Crossing), the black sheep of the family because she became the concubine of a wealthy man, now deceased. Weilong is seduced, or rather, allows herself to be seduced, by wastrel friend of the family George (Eddie Peng), who she knows is utterly hopeless, but alas, she loves him anyway.
The film is much in keeping with Love in a Fallen City, in that the heroine bends the expectations of the romance genre to her own desires. But where Cora Miao in the earlier film resisted Chow Yun-fat until he agreed to a relationship on her terms, Weilong first gives into George’s desires, knowing full well he doesn’t love her and, as an over-grown child, is incapable of an adult relationship, and then she spends the bulk of the movie trying to figure out what to do about it before settling on her unconventional conclusion. Her ambivalence and indecision is in keeping with the structuring theme of the film, in-betweenness as a state of being, mirroring Hui and Chang’s view of Hong Kong itself as a place caught between two irreconcilable worlds, precipitously perched on the edge of collapse with the looming Japanese invasion and subsequent civil war. Everything in Love After Love has a double or triple meaning: a surface opulence masking hidden rot in which our heroes nonetheless choose to indulge, knowing full well the dangers and/or emptiness at the heart of their world. An ornate treasure box with a snake inside, but the snake that turns out to be a favorite pet.
While this all works in theory and feeling, and there’s definitely an attractive vibe to Love After Love, it doesn’t really work as drama. Either because Ma and Peng aren’t able to convey charismatically the interiority of their characters—they seem to wildly swing from moment to moment, rather than embody whole, contradictory but nonetheless coherent individuals—or because there’s something missing in Hui’s conception of the film. Martin Scorsese used a narrator to capture Edith Wharton’s lightly sardonic authorial voice in The Age of Innocence, which plays up the irony of the story and gives us a proper perspective on the strengths and failures of her hero. Eileen Chang uses a similar narrative voice in her stories, but the only narration we get in the film is from Weilong herself, and not very much of it. It doesn’t clarify anything, but rather with its wistful melancholy tone only further muddles the character and story. We need to be able to step outside Weilong’s perspective, but instead we’re trapped with her, and since she’s never sure what she’s feeling or what if anything to do about it, we’re just as lost as she is. We can ride this opulent wave of ambivalence for awhile, but eventually, it just becomes exhausting and one longs for the Japanese invasion to simply blow this pretty world away.