Ann Hui is one of those directors who refuses to be typecast. Her films spread many genres and she has been one of the most influential directors in Hong Kong for over two decades. Being one of the forerunners of the Hong Kong New Wave in the 1970’s, Hui gained recognition for not only being a visionary, but also for gaining respect in an industry dominated by men. One can discuss Hui’s films in terms of popularity and box office returns, however, as a director she focuses her efforts on political and social issues while also incorporating her own story on different layers of intimacy. With this in mind, it is more appropriate to discuss her films terms of Hong Kong history and her personal journey.
Being one of very few women directors in Hong Kong, it would have been easy for Hui to align herself with feminism and make quintessential ‘women’s pictures;’ however, she takes a different approach. She blends many different subjects and genres unlike any director I have ever seen. Although many of her stories center on the domestic woman, they are not solely women’s pictures. Her films incorporate social realist qualities and the universal human condition though image and story. Love in a Fallen City, made in 1984, is a great example of Hui’s concentration on these subjects. The film follows a divorced mainland woman who travels to Hong Kong to distance herself from her family and to find a husband. She is introduced to a wealthy westernized man just before the beginning of WWII. Starry is the Night shares many of the same qualities as Love in a Fallen City. The film also follows a woman through love and loss of love. Both films follow woman, and their struggles are ones that transcends borders.
Internal and social conflicts, like in Love in a Fallen City, are often blended together. The story of the two lovers is set against the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war. One can tell, especially in the three films I have chosen that Hui incorporates a documentary feel to her personal, intiment stories. This is also apparent in one of the films I did watch, Starry is the Night in 1988. The story drifts between students in a university and those students later as adults. Hui’s social consciousness is apparent, although more subtly in Starry is the Night than in Love in a Fallen City. In Starry is the Night, there are moments when the protagonist is on the street and there are protesters with signs calling for democracy. Love in a Fallen City on the other hand, makes the social conflict an important element in the main characters journey. Starry is the Night simply has characters going about their daily business with the social elements being more of a backdrop.
The most important similarity to mention about these three films is the theme of past and present. Each approaches the subject in a similar way and, in the case of Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody, almost the exact same way. Love in a Fallen City is different in subtle but important ways. Where as in Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody, an old flame reappears in the lives of the protagonists, Love in a Fallen City has two different people representing two different ways of life.
Love in a Fallen City has Chow Yun Fat’s character as a wealthy, westernized man. He speaks fluent English and is in business with the British. However, our female protagonist, played by Cora Miao, is from Shanghai and was brought up traditionally as a representation this important element of all Chinese culture. In my opinion Hui was attempting to find balance between the western world and traditional values through the uniting of these two characters. However, at the end of the film I got the impression that the woman had become much more western yet her lover did not become more traditional. There was a scene near the end of the film showing the couple cleaning their demolished house. He has taken on a more domestic characteristic in the end, which could be seen as his return to tradition. I interpreted it as the two rebuilding their lives together.
Miao’s characters evolution from a mainlander to a Hong Kong citizen can also be illustrated through her costume. In the very beginning, she was wearing a type of uniform that was worn by her entire family. The silhouette was very simple and the print was very washed out and plain. However, by the end it is difficult to distinguish her clothing from the other modern women around her. Chow Yung Fat’s character makes a reference to the difference between her traditional clothing versus her modern clothing. He says her prefers her traditional clothes.
The theme of past and present is best illustrated by comparing Starry is the Night and July Rhapsody. Both films follow people who’s past loves have reappeared into their lives creating chaos in their personal lives. Starry is the Night follows a woman though the evolution of her different romances. The film uses flashback in unique ways to transfer back and forth between the past and present. Part of the film concentrates on the love affair she had with a professor while in college and the other part of the film concentrates on her present love affair with a young man who happens to be the son of her ex-lover. “The present becomes the means for the protagonist to relive the past” (Lo Wai 1999). There is a pivotal scene when the son meets his drunken father and the woman in a hotel room and they fight. This can be seen as Hong Kong’s conflict with their history and their future.
This similar storyline is followed in July Rhapsody, in this film we follow a teacher and his family as they deal with the reappearance of the wife’s ex-lover. He feels alienated, almost betrayed, by his wife’s desire to care for the man who abandoned her. He begins a relationship with one of his free spirited students to counteract these feelings. The relationship between the teacher and student is an important, dynamic element in both films. The young girl can be seen as a representation of the future, not only because of her age, but her multi-cultural nature and her willingness to experience life to the fullest. She is not bound by tradition in the way the male protagonist is. There is a scene when he tries to explain what he wants out of life and he emphasizes wanting to be the best father, the best husband and the best teacher. While this makes him virtuous, he hasn’t experienced the world in the way she has. His desire for an ideal life is so strong that he never learned to let go. The young student opens, in some ways, a Pandora’s box into her teacher’s personal life and by the end of the film he and his wife discuss a separation.
It is almost impossible to discuss a single element in Hui’s films because each element feeds into another. She achieves this through several different cinematic techniques. Firstly, Hui uses flashback so seamlessly in her films that if one doesn't pay attention it is easy to miss. The convention in the west when entering the subconscious is to use some type of visual or audio cue to signal the departure from reality. However, Hui uses no cues at all, she simply cuts from one consciousness to another. She relies on the audience’s ability to follow the story, which is difficult at times.
Hui also uses voiceover to achieve the same effect. Voiceover is used in her films to give the audience some insight to the internal conflict of the characters. In these three films, she uses this technique at the end as a way of closure. However, closure isn't what she gives us, all three stories end rather ambiguously. This is because she also uses voice over to show the viewer that the stories of these people continue on after the end of the film.
One important story element incorporated into all three films is the theme of coincidence. This is where Hui gets the drama for her pieces. None of the three stories could happen if it wasn’t for rather unlikely coincidence. For example, in Starry is the Night, is seems a little far-fetched that an older professional woman would fall for a sixteen year old kid that just happened to be the son of her ex-lover. However, these chance encounters, are not over played. This is true with all three films. When watching the film the audience will accept the coincidence because she uses it to great effect.
Hui’s uses of color and camera movement are also worth discussing because she doesn’t make creative choices arbitrarily. One running theme I saw thoughout all three films was the use of low camera angels and extreme low angels. Very rarely are we looking down on the characters and the characters seem to be looking up at each other during important moments in the characters journey. The only exception is the beginning of Love in a Fallen City. The male protagonist mentions several times how good the female protagonist is at ‘looking down’. I found this element of Hui’s film particularly interesting because Yasujiro Ozu is another director who uses low camera angles as a way of showing that everyone is flawed and no one should be looked down upon.
Hui’s use of color within the setting is also very interesting. All three of these films had a cool color tint to them. She uses blue, green and purple as a way of showing the alienation of the individuals as they reluctantly taken on a journey. (Lo Wai, 1999) The only time when warm colors are used is during the flashback sequences of July Rhapsody to represent a happier time of the teachers life. All three films also take place in cramped spaces to show the trapped feeling the characters feel in their present situation. She also uses color as a way of separating the human world from nature. In July Rhapsody she uses the color red as a way of representing not only the girls free spirit, but also the separation the man has from the natural world.
One theme that has helped define Ann Hui is her metaphor of the child without a mother. In the beginning of Love in a Fallen city there is a scene showing a child on the street crying for her mother, a moment later however we cut back to the female protagonist who is seeking, but not receiving, any comfort from her mother. The protagonist says that she can no longer live at home and she travels to Hong Kong only to find out that she is out of place there too. This can be seen as Hong Kong existing with out the motherland. Lo Wai asks, “ Can we say that a mother’s importance to a child is comparable to that of a country to its people?” (1999) To answer his question, I believe that a country is essential to any culture. It creates a sense of community and a sense of history that those who are displaced can’t experience. This is not necessarily as large of a conflict in America because we are, for the most part, a large landmass with one government. I think many Americans would find it difficult to understand Hong Kong’s complex with the mainland. The relationship between Hong Kong and China is a running theme not only in Hui’s films but in many other filmmakers as well.
Love in a Fallen City has the most to offer in terms of the mother complex. The female protagonist feels alienated from the other women in her family, including her mother because of her divorce. Her family is very large and her parents feel burdened by the added responsibility she brings. With so many children’s, her parents literally treat their daughters like cattle in an attempt to marry them all off as fast as possible. The female protagonist’s divorce coupled with the lack of sympathy from her family causes her to lose that connection with mother and with home.
A lot of this can be equated with the personal life of Hui herself, which makes them all the more powerful. Being of mixed race, Japanese and Chinese, it is understandable why she brings the theme of the motherland into not just this film, but the majority of her films as well. Hui is also very multicultural and this is an important element in all her films. She was born on the mainland, educated in London and she has worked in both Hong Kong and China. This has given her a broad range of experiences to draw upon. She doesn’t simply make Hong Kong films for people in Hong Kong, she makes her films for the people of the world and her themes are relatable everywhere.
One subtle multi-cultural element Hui adds to July Rhapsody is the bi-lingual ability of the girl. The two main characters discuss her ability to speak Japanese. And throughout her day-to-day activities she uses several English phrases. This could be showing that the Chinese are not as isolated as they once were. The young suffer less from the motherland complex; they are able to embrace the future much easier than those who emigrated.
The future is another element that plays out very subtly in Hui’s films. She does not attempt to create a fictionalized future. She keeps her stories rooted in reality. This is illustrated best by the end of July Rhapsody and Love in a Fallen City. In July Rhapsody, at the end of the film we see a boat floating off into the unknown while a voice over poetically talks about the Yangtze River. At the end of Love in a Fallen City there is no particular image that represents an unknown future but she leaves the ending so ambiguous that we know the future of this couple is uncertain. Even the end of Starry is the Night is completely ambiguous with both characters entering a new phase of life.
Her unwillingness to create a future can be parallel with her political agenda on some level. Many of her films, including Starry is the Night and Love in a Fallen City, have political and social agendas. However, Hui attempts to be objective about the situation and doesn’t paint either side as good or evil. Near the end of Love in a Fallen City, we see a short battle scene between the British and the Japanese, we don’t see any of the Japanese soldiers and the British soldiers seem to approach the battle formulaically. While the British refer the Japanese as ‘Japs,’ there doesn’t seem to be any obvious contempt for them as a people.
One could interpret this as Hui’s being unwilling to speak badly about a significant portion of her heritage, but I see it more as Hui’s unwillingness to judge who is right and wrong in war. Patricia Brett Erens says, “ One of the strengths of Hui’s work is her refusal to become a propagandist. She has been very vocal about her unwillingness to take sides on political issues.” She goes on to explain that Hui’s is not interested in perpetuating any social system and she prefers to highlight the pros and cons of all governments. (Erens, 2000)
Starry is the Night highlights the social problems and changes facing Hong Kong. It is important to know that not all changes to Hong Kong were negative. There were many different elements that shaped this region into one of the most modern cities in the world. One of the most profound changes was the change in the way people viewed themselves. Traditionally, the Chinese did not recognize the ego; there was a rigidly constructed social structure that placed the self at the bottom. China had always been about the collective mentality. But with the British colonization, people began to adopt a western way of seeing the self. People began to take control of their own destinies and became more motivated by their own personal desires. This can be seen in both July Rhapsody and Starry is the Night.
In July Rhapsody the young girl is a representation of the western way of viewing the self. There are two specific incidents that illustrate this point. Firstly, when the teacher approaches her and tells her that he knows about her feelings, she asks him to respect her freedom. This situation simply wouldn’t happen in traditional china. For a young girl to actively flirt, essentially giving herself to a married man who also happens to be her teaching and superior would have never been tolerated. The fact that the male character feels that he needs to respect her freedom is also a difference between modern Hong Kong society and traditional mainland society. The second example from this film comes at the end. While sitting on a train, the teacher and the student talk about what they hope to achieve in the future. During her discussion she says that she always gets what she wants. This shows that the youth of Hong Kong think more along the lines of westerners rather than their ancestors.
Starry is the Night also has a scene, which highlights the progression of Hong Kong in to the future. The female protagonist has decided to throw away her career in order to pursue her dreams of romance. When her associates attempt to change her mind they ask her not to be selfish. She responds with, “Hong Kong has its present achievements because everyone is selfish enough.” The idea of selfishness and abandoning ones responsibilities to follow ones dreams is, in some ways, a western creation, but and universal problem that is faced even by people who do not recognize the ego.
Ann Hui’s work is basically social-realism. But she incorporates poetic and lyrical elements that give many of her films a dream like quality. This is also emphasized by her editing techniques which blend time and space to create a 360-degree view of a characters world. These three films represent a wide range of Hui’s work along with the expansion of her style.
Love in a Fallen City is her earliest work of the group and by just looking at the surface of this film juxtaposed against the other two, it is obvious that this film is the most political. It goes as far to show actual wartime conflict and destruction. Starry is the Night is also political but on a much more subconscious level. The characters are aware of the conflicts and protests happening in the late 1980’s but the conflicts don’t affect the lives of the characters directly. July Rhapsody on the other hand is completely apolitical in my opinion. There were no references to any broad social concern and the story is completely absorbed into the characters.
Another political idea that isn’t mentioned but is apparent in Hui’s work is the idea of “One country, Two systems” idea perpetuated by the Chinese government to ease the tension in the pre-handover era. This is illustrated by Love in a Fallen City and July Rhapsody, through both films two main characters. One represents one system and the other, another system, yet both are Chinese.
Love in a Fallen City is the better example because the female protagonist embodies China not just though expository language, but though gesture, movement and expression. One of my favorite moments of the film is when she is standing in a mirror at home dancing a traditional dance in a mirror. This could be seen as China reflecting on its own beauty and customs. Also, while the other women in the film are running around and being vivacious, she sits quietly observing, unsure what to think about it. The other women, especially the female antagonist, find her to be dull but similarly, they do not know what to think of her. This can be compared to the struggle between Hong Kong and China before the take over. Neither region knows what to think of the other.
Despite the subject matter, each story is about a journey. “ In Ann Hui’s films, the person in the middle of the journey does not want to begin the journey in the first place; in other worlds, the journey is involuntary.” (Lo Wai 1999). This is shown in Love in a Fallen City very successfully. The female protagonist does not want to leave home until she comes to understand the resentment her family feels towards her. When a wealthy woman offers to take her to Hong Kong, she sees it as her only option. Lo Wai goes on to say “Circumstance require one to leave the community and the motherland; yet, the person, like seaweed, cannot put down roots in the new place.” When she reaches Hong Kong she feels completely out of place and isolated. It isn’t until she returns to Shanghai, in a home of her own, is she able to find comfort.
The idea of displacement and replacement are also important to this theme. In many of my readings I came across the word ‘Diaspora,’ many times. This word refers to Jews being scattered around the Middle East after they left Babylon. Lo Wai translates this word into “san ju, which means scatter inhabitation or more poetically haiwai fuyou which means floating abroad.” Although none of the stories take place abroad this idea can be seen if one looks deeper into each character's situation. Although these characters are not abroad, the idea can be inverted and can be used to discuss the characters own feelings of floating without a destination.
To really have an understanding of Hui’s style I would have to experience more of her films. She incorporates so many different elements into her films that it is impossible to speak of them all. There are, of course, particular themes she is fond of such as the complex between mother and child, political and social dynamics and the journey. Her style changes over time, her earlier films were more socially concerned and the stories and settings were grittier. However, her newer films are more melodramatic and sentimental (Erens, 2000). Both styles, in my opinion, suit her.
Ann Hui has had and enormous impact on filmmaking not only in Hong Kong but also all over the world. She coalesces many different genres, themes and characteristics. Some say that Hui is a pessimist, however, I do not see this. The ends of these films are filled with hope for a better future despite the ambiguity. She is a humanist. She doesn’t judge who is good and who is evil or who is right and who is wrong. She has an unmatched ability to objectively look at the human condition and make it accessible to anyone willing to spend time with her films.
(This is a term paper I wrote a few years back while still in college. I have to give props to my professor Joelle Collier who really instilled in me a love of Hong Kong cinema)
What do you think of Ann Hui? Comment below!