Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)

Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)

Revolution is war is hell.

Something in the air with the Hong Kong New Wave and Japanese leftists in 1982. Patrick Tam’s Nomad envisions the United Red Army as psychotic dead-enders while Ann Hui here depicts an idealistic photojournalist who sees past the Potemkin images provided for him by the newly victorious government of Vietnam to the nasty reality of post-revolutionary entrenchment. It’s hard not to read Hui’s Vietnam as a stand-in for China during the Cultural Revolution, but that just may be because I know a bit more about China in this period than I do Vietnam: the forced labor camps, the elevation of bureaucratic illusionism to a political doctrine, the cannibalization of the previous generation’s revolutionaries by a new generation of amoral ideologues (coming of age in a period of war, they lack any kind of rational moral sense, or rather, “the revolution doesn’t allow for petit-bourgeois notions of ethics” as they put it).

George Lam plays the Japanese journalist Akutagawa, a World War II orphan whose parents were killed by American bombing when he was only a year old, and who documented the triumphant liberation of Danang. He returns to Vietnam three years later to report on the country’s progress. What he finds once he manages to break away from the direction of the Culture Bureau horrifies him. Starving children stripping bodies of freshly executed men, kids selling themselves into prostitution, political prisoners forced to clear fields of landmines all while the older generation of revolutionaries drink themselves to oblivion in nostalgia for their early post-colonial ideals. In a blunt but potent metaphor, Akutagawa is so moved by what he sees that he takes action, trading his camera for the cash to finance the escape of a couple of kids.

The film was attacked as pro-Chinese and/or anti-Communist propaganda on its release in 1982. It was the first Hong Kong film shot on the mainland since the revolution (technically on the island of Hainan, under PRC control) and was made in the wake of the brief Chinese border war with Vietnam in 1979. The role played by Andy Lau (one of his very first performances) was meant for Chow Yun-fat (who had starred in Hui’s previous film about Vietnamese refugees, The Story of Woo Viet) but, the story goes, he turned it down because by shooting a movie in China, Chow would have been blacklisted by the Taiwanese film industry. The film was pulled from competition at Cannes apparently because of its political content (the French government was anxious to maintain good relations with Vietnam) and it was apparently panned in the Village Voice by J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris, though I can’t find their reviews or comments online.

But the politics of revolutionary art in the late 70s and early 80s were more fraught than they are today. Far removed as we are from the cauldron of the Vietnam War, we can look at Hui’s film on its own terms, and see that it was what she maintained it was all along: a deeply humane anti-war film. It doesn’t take a position on politics, or on Vietnam itself. What it depicts is a society gone off the rails, utterly destroyed by 50 years of war and poverty. It’s not the ideology of the victors that’s at fault, it’s war itself. My working theory on the Hong Kong New Wave is that it was attempting to document as clearly as possible within certain industrial generic confines the reality of a generation of kids raised in the abject backwash of decades of war. Boat People is the most direct expression of that idea I’ve seen yet.