Uncovering a little known chapter in Hong Kong history, “Our Time Will Come” dramatizes the resistance efforts of indigenous Leftist guerillas during the Japanese occupation from 1941-’44. Although cut from the same cloth as umpteen patriotic film and TV dramas spoon-fed to mainland audiences since 1949, in Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s hands, the tone feels curiously subdued and laid-back, with little bombast or even excitement. Produced by China’s major studio Bona, the film was abruptly pulled from the opening slot of the Shanghai International Film Festival, but allowed to premiere later during the event.
Although it’s competently narrated and boasts fine acting from the leads (who nonetheless look nothing like locals), it’s hard to see how this serious period drama could connect with the popular tastes of either Hong Kong or mainland audiences. Meanwhile, it skirts controversy by exposing the fact that Hong Kong was already teeming with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members under British colonial rule, detailing how the city’s political fate has been inseparable from the mainland’s long before the 1997 Handover.
This is Hui’s third film set during the Sino-Japanese War, the others being “Love in a Fallen City” and “The Golden Era.” All three movies portray independent-minded heroines fighting to assert themselves in such a tumultuous environment, but whereas the two earlier films were dominated by romantic storylines, here, the female protagonist operates within a community of kindred spirits, making personal fulfillment a secondary concern.
In 1941, after the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Hong Kong, the CCP draws up a plan to ferry nearly a hundred Leftist intellectuals, artists and film veterans to safety, the most famous of whom is writer Mao Tun (Guo Tao), who is lodging at the Wanchai home of Mrs. Fong (Deanie Ip) and her teacher daughter Lan (Zhou Xun). When something goes wrong on the day of Mao’s departure, Lan, who’s a big fan of his writing, impulsively assists local guerrillas on the rescue mission. Impressed by Lan’s composure, their captain Blackie (Eddie Peng) recruits her to join the urban unit to liaise with members hiding in outlying fishing communities and “walled villages” inhabited by indigenous Hakka.
Whether a directorial decision or one born out of budget constraints, instead of gearing up as a full-blown war epic or taut spy thriller, the narrative strikes a more relaxed pace that de-glamorizes the underground resistance. Lan and her comrades’ role is basically that of a courier delivery service. Blackie, who is based on a legendary real-life sharpshooter, dispatches Japanese soldiers and Chinese traitors with no-nonsense efficiency that’s the antithesis of Hong Kong-style bullet ballet. Even Lan’s fiancé Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), a double agent working in the Japanese army’s headquarters, is mostly seen leisurely discussing Song dynasty poetry with Japanese colonel Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase).
The most absorbing drama stems from the affectionate relationship Lan has with her mother, who doesn’t take long to figure out what her daughter’s up to. Though she’s fully aware of the danger involved, Mrs Fong doesn’t oppose her, but instead tries to ease her load in ways that have dire consequences.
In a checkered career spanning over four decades, Hui’s strongest suit has been neorealist works, such as “A Simple Life” and “The Way We Are,” that depict Hong Kong’s grassroots with compassion and respect. There’s thematic continuity and perhaps even a contemporary subtext here in her depiction of ordinary citizens’ fortitude under gravely deteriorating living conditions and internal strife, as seen in a risibly thrifty wedding scene. By highlighting the value of artists and intellectuals, and the importance of protecting them, she imbues the authentic historical episode with timely universal relevance.
Zhou has played similar roles in WWII spy-thrillers “The Message” and “The Silent War,” but this is her most natural performance. She holds attention in every shot, conveying her conviction without resorting to demonstrative emotional outbursts or flag-waving dialogue. A pivotal moment in which she weighs filial love against the greater good is so measured and controlled its wrenching impact doesn’t fully register several scenes later.
Ip is simply terrific as the down-to-earth single-mother with a heart of gold, a role that recalls but doesn’t rehash her scintillating turn as an altruistic nanny in “A Simple Life,” which won her best actress honors at the Venice Film Festival. With her colloquial dialogue and unique mannerisms, she brings much-needed humor to serious scenarios, imbuing small talk with layers of nuance.
The bulk of the story, which spans the entire occupation, is interspersed with present-day interviews conducted by Hui herself of Ben (Tony Leung Ka-fai), an elderly man who served as a messenger for the guerillas. Shot in black-and-white for documentary effect, the alternating timelines remind one that life goes on. As Ben said, he became a taxi driver after the war, because “you gotta eat.”
The film ends with a relatively downbeat feeling, eschewing the jubilation of victory while letting the protagonists fade out, their fates unknown. This in turn lends a sense of ambivalence to the passage Lan reads aloud from Mao Tun’s inspirational essay “Evening,” written in 1927 after the CCP experienced a setback at the start of the civil war.