Ann Hui first came to international prominence in the early ’80s with “Boat People,” an intensely harrowing drama about the horrors of life under communism in post-liberation Vietnam. Screened as a surprise entry at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival (after being pulled from competition by order of the French government), the picture sparked immediate controversy and was angrily dismissed in some quarters as a work of Chinese-backed propaganda. The debate grew so fierce that Hui felt spurred to insist, not for the last time, that she was an ideologically neutral filmmaker, and that “Boat People,” whatever else it might be, was above all an appeal to the personal over the political.
It’s hard not to wonder if the next 30 years or so of Hui’s remarkably varied career have been a sort of collective response to that provocative milestone, born of some private determination that she would never again allow herself to be so recklessly pigeonholed. It is precisely that refusal to be pinned down, to be easily defined as one thing or the other, that defines her as a filmmaker. She has made intimate dramas about middle-age romances and cross-generational friendships, but also Qing Dynasty wuxia epics and slapstick horror-comedies. She has made films set in the past and present (often simultaneously), films that are keyed in to the rhythms of contemporary Hong Kong life, and also films that have pushed past temporal and geographical boundaries to take in a broader swath of Asian and Asian-American experience.
On the surface, her accessible, unfussy directing style may lack the sort of readily identifiable signature of her Hong Kong New Wave contemporaries like Wong Kar Wai and John Woo. This has inclined some critics to think of her as more journeyman than auteur, although anyone who has seen her viscerally unsettling mystery “The Secret” (1979) or her madcap ghost story “The Spooky Bunch” (1981) can attest to their wicked spirit of invention and formal audacity.
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Those early experimental tendencies receded as she began working in a more overtly serious, socially conscious vein: Her “Vietnam trilogy” (of which “Boat People” represented the final installment) marked the beginning of her committed engagement with stories about the displaced and marginalized, during which she would continually critique nationalist ideologies and interrogate systems of oppression, while frustrating any clear sense of her own particular leanings and sympathies. It’s with a similarly unassuming sense of purpose and inclusiveness that Hui has worn her crown as Hong Kong’s best-known female filmmaker — and indeed, one of the too-few prominent distaff directors to have emerged from Asia over the past several decades.
Hui is known for having worked with the biggest male superstars in Asia, including Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung and Chow Yun-fat, even as she has continually placed a diverse range of female characters front and center — as in “Song of Exile” (1990), her semi-autobiographical drama about a Hong Kong mother and her Western-raised daughter coming to terms, and in “The Stuntwoman” (1996), which cast Michelle Yeoh in a sly look at the Hong Kong action-movie industry. Watching these movies, you never sense that Hui’s choice of protagonist has been dictated by gender politics; her interest in these women feels inextricable from her interest in the full spectrum of human experience.
In likewise fashion, while she has long demonstrated a fascination with history — as evidenced by the likes of “Love in a Fallen City” (1984), a 1940s romance set against the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, or her most recent picture, “The Golden Era,” an ambitious biopic of the 1930s mainland writer Xiao Hong — Hui has arguably done her finest work in contemporary settings, particularly those movies in which she casts a bemused, compassionate and unfailingly observant eye on Hong Kong’s middle and lower classes.
Even here, however, the director has often adopted a dialectical, compare-and-contrast approach: “Summer Snow” (1995), about a middle-aged housewife coping with various crises including her father-in-law’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, received a companion piece seven years later in “July Rhapsody” (2002), a beautifully becalmed drama about a high-school teacher’s midlife crisis. Hui’s humanism can cut both ways, with unexpected sharpness: “The Way We Are” (2008) spun a gently touching story of friendship and bonding in the Hong Kong region of Tin Shui Wai, but it was followed the next year by “Night and Fog,” a grim, ripped-from-the-headlines drama of domestic abuse pointedly set in the same town.
Hui may have launched her career with an attention-grabbing splash, but I’ve always found her to be at her best examining the quiet ripples unleashed by her characters’ everyday interactions; few filmmakers have her talent for teasing out the hidden truths of a relationship, or describing the precise balance of give-and-take between two people who care for one another. The sensitivity of her approach achieved an apotheosis of sorts in “A Simple Life” (2011), a bracingly unsentimental, deeply moving slice-of-life drama starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as, respectively, a Hong Kong actor and the Chinese domestic helper who raised him.
In its unfashionable suggestion that our duty to our aging loved ones, far from being a burden, might instead be a wellspring of unforced compassion, even joy, “A Simple Life” revealed a mature artist at the peak of her powers, stealing more than a glance in the direction of the humanist masterworks of Edward Yang and Yasujiro Ozu. Like those filmmakers, Hui adopts a calm, measured voice not because she’s incapable of raising it, but rather because she has so much to say.