Golden Lion Honoree Ann Hui on the ‘Sheer Joy of Making Films’

Ann Hui receives Golden Lion in
Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia/ASAC/Giorgio Zucchiatti

“Young filmmakers do not need the old actively helping them,” said Ann Hui during her masterclass at the Venice Film Festival, raising some eyebrows. The Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement recipient went on to explain: “[That’s because young filmmakers’] rules, environment, experiences are completely different. By actively advising, we can hinder more than help. Unless the director is also a very good teacher. But being a great teacher is more difficult than being a great filmmaker.”

Hui, one of Asia’s most prolific and versatile directors, has some insight on this because she was a teacher of film herself. “I was very serious about homework and stuff. I don’t think my students liked that,” she joked, adding: “I feel sometimes students are too serious about an intended subject. Sheer joy of making films can take you a long way.”

The director is taking part in the festival not only as an award recipient but also presenting her out of competition entry “Love After Love.” It’s her third time on the Lido, after 2014 with closing film “The Golden Era” and 2011 with “A Simple Life,” which won four awards, including the Volpi Cup for best actress for Deanie Ip. The film went on to become a big success worldwide. “Love After Love” is Hui’s third adaptation of the late Eileen Chang’s prose, the previous being “Love in a Fallen City” (1984) and “Eighteen Springs” (1997). “I was a fan of hers since the 1970s. I never saw Hong Kong depicted so well. Unlike other writers at that time, she treated foreign characters equally to Chinese. That gives a different, much more modern, perspective. [After all these years] I know Eileen Chang so well, I feel like she’s my sister.”

Hui is acknowledged as one of the pivotal figures of the so-called Hong Kong New Wave. But she claims that was not a conscious plan, rather a natural turn of events. Self-proclaimed kung-fu fan, she came back to Hong Kong after graduating from the London Film School in 1975. It was the same year King Hu got a technical prize at the Cannes Film Festival for “Touch of Zen,” which inspired her. Starting her job at a television studio, she expected to do something along these lines. “I didn’t have a mission of doing realistic films. But the head said: we should do films about ordinary life in Hong Kong. Realistic was thrust on us.”

It started with a TV police drama, then short documentaries on 16mm for Television Broadcasts Limited. “I learned that way, that immediate reaction, instantaneous interaction, is the most precious and happiest thing about filmmaking.” She was sent to police stations and had to talk to policemen to prepare. “It was then that research became my lifelong habit,” she said.

She revealed that watching “That Day, on the Beach” (1983) by Taiwanese director Edward Yang was an important turning point in her filmmaking life. “I watched it and thought Hong Kong New Wave is dead. The film was talking about reality with an intensity and depth we lacked.”

She later found the same sensation in Hou Hsiao Hsien’s films, especially “The Time to Live and the Time to Die.” Trying to capture what sets the Taiwanese films apart from theirs, she asked one of Hou Hsiao Hsien’s scriptwriters to collaborate. “Hong Kong scriptwriters were plot and action driven, and that one started telling me it’s the characters that come first and the story follows, not the other way around.”

The host Elena Pollacchi praised Hui’s ability to bond with her actors. “I get confused myself whether I’m nice or professional,” Hui jokingly responded. “I think I feel confident with actors. I used to distrust myself. In the middle of my career I tried many takes, did long prep. But the result wasn’t good. Now I do a lot of preparation, but by myself. I watch my actors’ other work to know their range, to have the vocabulary to talk to them. Thanks to that we can gain immediate understanding. If you have done your homework.”

The director pointed out that her task is also to gain the actor’s trust. How? “Always try to bring out the best, but say it loud when it’s no good. You have to be able to believe each other. An actor is foremost a person, not a tool. I feel strongly about this because supposedly so many good directors are tyrants” – a very timely observation when the film industry is on a mission to re-learn how to make sure people who are a part of the production process are treated fairly and with dignity.

The Hong Kong bred director has been praised for being versatile in terms of genre. Hui’s work has ranged from melodramas and ghost stories to martial arts movies, thrillers and adaptations of major literary works. “In ‘Love After Love’ I was looking for a tone that’s sharp and almost funny, even though the story is tragic. Life these days is like that: our realization of life is neither totally tragic nor totally optimistic. I like mixing different genres and tones. If you do it well, people will find resonance, because it’s already in them.”

How does she know a project that comes up is right for her? “It’s a very organic thing. Like John Keats called it: negative capability. Like, ‘I just want to make films, I don’t care what they are, I am so excited.’ It’s not a conscious artistic approach, I work almost as a fan. It’s not that I don’t know what I’m doing. But I feel it’s okay to be open to different subjects. If I get a job, I feel happy.”

When the floor opened to audience questions, Hui was asked by a young filmmaker for advice. “You don’t do a film until you know what to do. You have to define your questions first,” she responded and continued to talk about a significant shift she’s witnessed in the film business. “It’s a whole new world out there. Making films is not as difficult as it used to be. You don’t need a huge screen to get a big audience anymore. You can do a feature on weekends, with a $10,000 budget and a five-person crew, if you are well-organized and work hard. If I were a young filmmaker now, I would do whatever it takes to just start shooting. I’d start from small things.”