After four decades spent telling the stories of overlooked people, director Ann Hui becomes the subject of a documentary about her own remarkable career
Walking onstage to receive the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice International Film Festival in September, Hong Kong director Ann Hui On-wah captured the world’s attention with her disarmingly self-deprecating manner. Dressed in her signature, minimalist uniform of a black blazer over a white poplin shirt (Prada on this occasion), round glasses, plain black trainers and a single, sparkling statement earring dangling from her left lobe, she spoke not much of herself, but rather, her home.
“Thanking you alone does not adequately express my feelings,” Hui said. “You do not know what encouragement you are giving to the people of Hong Kong, too.”
In many ways, it was a moment that perfectly illustrated the essence of Hui, whose work, above all, reflects a lifelong appreciation for the city in which she was raised and has lived most of her life, and a keen eye for observing all of its nuances. Her camera has documented some of the most powerful and candid stories about Hong Kong’s most overlooked people.
Hui said of the city: “It has given me an education and a scholarship to study film in London. It has given me my life experiences and chances to work and find fulfilment.
“I treasure even my sufferings there and all those crazy, cool people,” she added, before making a vow from the stage to support young filmmakers pursuing their dreams today
Despite Hui’s success, the much sought-after director normally shies away from the glitz and glamour associated with her trade, as well as the paparazzi and journalists. In a rare interview following her return to Hong Kong, one that she accepted only after several rounds of invitations that started in July, Hui was at first reserved. It wasn’t until she recalled that moment in Venice that a wide smile suddenly broke across her face.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”
After Venice, Hui will release Love After Love, her third film adaptation of and fourth work based on Shanghai writer Eileen Chang’s first romance short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, an incisive depiction of the chaotic, East-meets-West landscape of Hong Kong shortly before the Second World War. Love After Love was screened out of competition in Venice and is expected to be released in Hong Kong and China next year.
This December, the Hong Kong film distribution company Golden Scene will release Keep Rolling, a documentary by local visual arts director Man Lim-chung, which celebrates Hui’s life and decades-long career. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Hui at work and interviews with her and people around her, it will be the first retrospective to shed light on the director’s personal life and the inspiration behind her work, a side of Hui that she rarely reveals.
“I just want to make films,” Hui says. “I don’t think my story deserves that much drama. It’s almost embarrassing.” When the subject of filmmaking is raised, though, she softens, to some degree relishing the significance of finally being recognised for her own achievement rather than being overshadowed by her male contemporaries.
“In the filmmaking industry, there are more male than female directors. Winning this award as a woman offers more coverage and noise for female directors, and in turn there will be more job opportunities and recognition for us,” she says. “But gosh, I hope there won’t be too much publicity about me. It’ll be difficult to focus on my work.”
Arriving at a photoshoot at Wan Chai’s Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts a few days later, Hui comes across as slightly elusive as she greets Tatler’s editorial team with quick hellos and nice-to-meet-yous before dashing over to sit for a portrait. But her films tell a different story, as Hui’s dauntless character can be seen throughout her 42-year career directing and producing films and television series that cast light on some of Hong Kong’s most pronounced social problems. She has embraced taboo subjects, including gender and age, and focused her lens on refugees, housewives and domestic helpers.
Announcing Hui’s recent award, Venice International Film Festival director Alberto Barbera lauded her ability to weave important social themes into individual stories with a degree of sensitivity and sophistication that is rare in filmmaking. “Not only has she captured the specific aspects of the city and the imagination of Hong Kong, she has also transposed and translated them into a universal perspective,” Barbera said.
Man, the documentary director, was attracted to Hui’s story because her characters and settings represent the city so well. “Hui is a conservationist of Hong Kong,” he says in an interview. “She documents the diversity of the city’s people, landscapes and neighbourhoods, such as Mei Foo and Tin Shui Wai, and livelihood issues faced by locals.”
Films by Hui have earned recognition both locally and internationally: The Golden Era closed the 2014 Venice Film Festival and she has won Taiwan’s Golden Horse award for best director three times. At home, she has been named best director at the Hong Kong Film Awards six times, including two grand slams: scooping best film, director, screenplay, actor and actress in the same ceremony.
Hui was born in Liaoning province in northeastern China in 1947 to a government official father who met her Japanese mother while stationed in Mukden, Manchuria. In 1952, the family relocated to Hong Kong permanently and moved into an apartment in the city’s oldest public housing estate in North Point.
As a child, Hui was an avid reader and film fan. “I wasn’t interested in making films but I loved watching all sorts of films,” she says.
“My paternal grandmother took me to watch Cantonese films in Macau and my father took me to the cinema for morning cartoon shows every Sunday after going to church in Hong Kong. I loved Tom and Jerry.” When Hui was in primary school, she got a thrill from American swashbuckler films—“people sword-fighting in French castles”—but by secondary school and university, she was drawn to historical Mandarin dramas by Shaw Studios, for a time the largest film studio in Hong Kong before its decline in the 1980s.
Hui’s love of storytelling led her to study comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong, where she discovered French New Wave cinema, a postwar movement that bucked the trend for simple and entertaining Hollywood narratives with avant-garde artistry and intellectual, challenging themes. After Hui wrote her thesis on Alain Robbe-Grillet, the French novelist and director, her advisor suggested that she pursue a postgraduate degree in film.
In the early Seventies, there weren’t a lot of filmmaking courses in Hong Kong. Aspiring filmmakers opted to study in the West, in Hui’s case the London Film School, where they learned American and European styles of film. Hui and contemporaries like Tsui Hark and John Woo would become a new generation of more than a dozen young filmmakers in the late 1970s referred to as the “Hong Kong New Wave” by director Clifton Ko Chi-sum when he interviewed Hui during his time as a student.
These new directors moved away from the comedies, action and kung fu films that dominated the mainstream, paving the way for auteurs such as Wong Kar-wai in the next decade. Each had their own distinctive style: for Wong, it was neon hues and blurred cinematography, while Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s films combined the cosmopolitan glamour of Hong Kong and Shanghai with international arthouse styles.
Despite fame and influence associated with this vanguard, Hui is reluctant to consider herself part of it. “I didn’t like [the idea of Hong Kong New Wave] because I thought the particular grouping erased my individuality,” she said in 2010. Hui’s understated pictures are starkly different from bold visual styles like Wong’s that were designed for the big screen, meaning that her skill behind the camera is occasionally overlooked—even by her own family.
“Even my brother still isn’t convinced that I’m a director today,” Hui says, with a laugh. “He said directors should be technically skilled at photography, but I take terrible pictures.” In Keep Rolling, Hui recalls she walked around town taking photos casually in the street, only later to realise the roll of film was blank. “I forgot to remove the cap,” she says, still laughing.
While narrow lanes and dark staircases are made moodier with romanticised colouring and camera angles in Wong’s 2000 film In the Mood for Love, the humdrum wet markets and tenement buildings seen through Hui’s lens are presented just as they are in reality: cramped and ordinary, but not necessarily undignified.
Her acclaimed 2008 drama The Way We Are follows a single mother (played by Nina Paw Hee-ching) living a mundane life as a supermarket worker in Tin Shui Wai, the New Territories district bordering China that was notoriously dubbed “the tragic town” by local media due to its high rate of murders, suicides and other crimes. The film’s uneventful plot parallels its non-cinematic visuals, yet it was described as “a tribute to the resilience of life” by local critics at the time.
Hui’s style is to mirror reality as closely as possible and shoot on location; she is one of the first Hong Kong directors to include scenes of real residents and passersby in her films, such as the Sham Shui Po elderly home seen in the 2011 film A Simple Life and the Tin Shui Wai shopping malls in The Way We Are.
Even my brother still isn’t convinced that I’m a director today. He said directors should be technically skilled at photography, but I take terrible pictures.
Passion for filmmaking
Hui explains how living here for decades allows her to observe the social changes in Hong Kong, and develop strong feelings for ordinary, overlooked or unglamorous stories. In her early career, she interviewed a marginalised group of Vietnamese refugees who had fled the war for the RTHK programme Below the Lion Rock in 1978, inspiring her film Boat People in 1982. “Having the urge to express a feeling or message is why a director wants to make a film in the first place,” she says.
Hui admits her unromantic films about ordinary women are always a gamble. “Although a number of my films were unexpectedly successful, I never knew for sure how my audience would receive them. But I never shoot a film for the sake of shooting a film,” she says.
Film producer Shi Namsun has been a friend of Hui’s since 1978, when they met while working on an episode of RTHK’s iconic television series Under the Lion Rock. Of A Simple Life, she says, “It used no fancy techniques, yet it had such powerful universal values that found resonance with audiences worldwide. The film is sad, yet in a way uplifting. It has humour about our daily lives. It made us re-examine our values in life.”
So particular is Hui about the films she makes that she took 17 years to complete Eighteen Springs, an adaptation of Eileen Chang’s romance novel, which Hui began in 1980. She explains, “I wasn’t able shoot it in Shanghai, and seeking a studio to shoot it for me didn’t seem right. So I waited until 1997 when a lot more people returned to the mainland to make films. The production team asked me if I was interested. The timing and condition were right then.”
Hui says she has been rejected many times for realist stories that she really wants to shoot, one of the reasons she hasn’t sought long-term partnerships with production houses, though she does occasionally take on bigger or more commercial film assignments to tide herself over.
“I’m quite a demanding director who is hard to please. My team has to be as dedicated and hardworking as me. They can’t complain. They earn very little in return,” she says. Her stern face suddenly lets out a laugh: “Honestly, who would work with someone so unbearable?”
Home Is Where Her Inspiration Is
This doesn’t stop Hui from telling stories that she really loves. “If investors don’t like the idea, I just put it aside for the time being; it won’t be wasted,” she says. She certainly isn’t short of ideas: having lived in Hong Kong since she was five, Hui finds inspiration in every corner of her home city.
“There are a lot of things that tourists won’t notice unless you have lived here for a long time: it’s a great feeling walking down the streets and knowing the faces in your neighbourhood, the best milk tea options or the start of the sale seasons,” she says in a way that recalls her 1995 black comedy Summer Snow and its bargain-hunting housewife character who haggles over fish.
In the movie, whose Cantonese title literally translates to “Women at Forty”, Josephine Siao plays a woman stuck in a dead-end job who is forced to look after her Alzheimer’s-stricken father-in-law. While researching Summer Snow, Hui began focusing on age more closely. “I was 48. I wasn’t thinking too much about ageing before, but the process made me realise the problems old people experience,” she says.
The subject of ageing came up once again in A Simple Life, which takes the perspective of an elderly former domestic helper called Sister Peach, who witnesses other families abandon their relatives in her retirement home. Hui’s own wry view on ageing came through in Venice, where she led her speech with a quote by the poet Dylan Thomas, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” before adding, “Maybe Venice Film Festival gave me this prize in the nick of time before I cannot walk up to this stage to collect this prize myself”, to chuckles from the audience.
However, at 73, Hui is far from retirement. After Love After Love she has several film projects in the pipeline, though she is tight-lipped on specifics. But, knowing Hui, more extraordinary stories are to be told from the most ordinary of places.
“At the end of the day, I always return to simple and emotional films about ordinary people,” she says. “Theirs are the stories that touch my heart.”