Ann Hui started out her film career working in television, creating short documentaries for organizations with the goal of cleaning up Hong Kong’s government misconduct. Since then, Hui has searched for ways to continue making socially conscious projects, whether they be film or television.
Born in Manchuria in 1947 to a Chinese father and Japanese mother, Hui moved with her parents to Macau and then Hong Kong. In 1972, she received a master’s degree in English and comparative literature at the University of Hong Kong. She studied for two years at London Film School where she wrote her thesis on the works of French writer and filmmaker, Alain Robbe-Grillet.
Upon returning to Hong Kong, Hui became an assistant to the prominent Chinese director King Hu. In 1977, she produced and directed films for ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption), a Hong Kong organization which wanted to clean up government corruption. “I was responsible for starting that program,” Hui said in an interview with Eastern Kicks. “Everything from the scripting to shooting and editing. But then I said maybe you should give me all kinds of stories so I can choose. So they just let me read all their files, any file I liked, and then they suggested a piece about police corruption, a piece about corruption in the private sector, the best stories. I read all the files and chose the stories, and then I asked my boss. They said no problem. So I chose these cases, and afterwards I asked a scriptwriter whom I wanted to work with, I shot, set up the schedule, everything. But I asked approval every time, and every time it was fine.”
Two of the shorts she directed for ICAC were so controversial, they were banned from ever airing. Hui went on to direct three episodes of Below the Lion Rock, which depicted people from Hong Kong. The episode, “Boy From Vietnam” was the start of Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy”. Hui explained since Below the Lion Rock was produced by Radio Television Hong Kong, a government run station, the episodes were essentially publicity for different government departments. That season concentrated on the immigration department.
“We asked the immigration department about the different nationalities that came to Hong Kong and they said, ‘we have these Vietnamese who came to us as refugees, would you like to know about them?’ We visited them in a camp. And we were very shocked to know about it. We didn’t know what had happened in Vietnam at the time. We knew the war had come to an end but it seems very remote. We thought these people should be pitied, but when we talking about it with our fellow filmmakers, one of them, Allen Fong told me, ‘You shouldn’t pity them, you should pity yourself, because Hong Kong is actually a big refugee camp! [Laughs] You are a refugee, or the descendant of refugees!’ For me, it changed the whole story. It’s not like we are trying to propagate sympathy for refugees, but telling our own story in a different way. That’s what I felt,” Hui said.
Fong and Hui were both considered part of the Hong Kong New Wave, a group of young, groundbreaking Hong Kong filmmakers in the 1970s and 80s, who were responsible for creating films with a contemporary Hong Kong identity and using the Cantonese dialect in their work, as opposed to Mandarin. Other members included Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, and Yim Ho.
In 1979, Hui directed her first feature film, The Secret. While the trend during the 1980s was Eastern variations on popular American genres like gangster and action films, Hui concentrated on projects with a more personal touch. Her films involve themes of cultural displacement and her characters are often forced to relocate to another country and struggle to survive.
While filming her episode on the Vietnamese refugees for Below the Lion Rock, Hui had much more footage than she needed for the episode, which she thought was better quality. “I was fascinated by their life before; what made them risk everything to escape?” She had the idea to go back and shoot more footage so she could make a feature about them, which turned into The Story of Woo Viet (1981), the second piece of her Vietnam trilogy, and then the last part, Boat People (1982). “It [Boat People] came to me as a project that a producer had started. It wasn’t planned as a three-part thing!”
Her next project, A Song of Exile, is perhaps her most personal and auto-biographical film. A young woman, Cheung Hueyin, returns from studying film in London to attend her sister’s wedding in Hong Kong. Hueyin and her mother, who is Japanese, do not seem to have a good relationship, but as the film follows Hueyin’s journey to her mother’s hometown in Japan, the two women re-examine their relationship to each other and as individuals.
Hui tried to develop a project about the Tiananmen Square massacre and the reactions of Hong Kong citizens, but the film never received traction with investors. The Chinese government no longer uses the term, “Tiananmen Square massacre” preferring to call it the Tiananmen Square protests or the June 4th protests.
But Hui is continually determined to make socially conscious projects even knowing the risks in terms of funding and in terms of those types of films appealing to audiences. Hui has said in interviews that her goal is to “present something watchable and at the same time attractive.” Her films, The Way We Are (2008) and Night and Fog (2009), both focus on the issues of increased crime and unemployment rates in the Tin Shui Wai area of Hong Kong.
Her 2011 film, A Simple Life, is actually based on the true story of film producer Roger Lee and his servant Sister Peach, who has worked for Lee’s family for four generations. Although a more personal film, it also raises awareness of issues such as aging. In the film, Sister Peach (Deanie Ip) has a series of strokes and at one point, she decides to leave her lodgings in Roger’s apartment and enter a retirement community. At first the community feels cold and unwelcoming and the staff unable to cope with the patients’ care, but eventually Peach begins to make friends and Ms. Choi (Qin Hai Lu), who works in the nursing home, shows she really cares about the patients as people.
But it’s also a reflection on choices we make throughout our lives. Peach never married. She chose her work for Roger’s family over having one of her own and Roger has not married–something Peach tease him about–although his brothers and sisters back in the U.S. have and started families of their own. But does it matter? As the film shows, there’s a sense of loneliness, especially at the end of our lives, whether we have family or not.
Hui had originally considered retiring after making A Simple Life, but the film’s success changed her mind and she continued to pursue other projects, next directing The Golden Era. Hui has mentioned in interviews that even with the success of A Simple Life, The Golden Era was a project she had difficulty getting off the ground. When asked if she continues to pursue funding for a project, she said, “If I have a topic that I really want to do, and I can’t, I just leave it. I go to something else, instead of mourning over what I can’t do. You never get a 100% perfect situation for [making] a movie. Sometimes it depends on your judgement. Sometimes you should do it even if the circumstances are not right, but sometimes you should really wait.; it depends on different films.
Just imagine if, on A Simple Life, it wasn’t made with Deanie Ip, and I had maybe to wait three years for her? It’s worth the wait, because another actress might not be the same thing already. But then you have to have that judgement or that piece of luck to have her. So I think its luck more than anything else. I would have shot that movie with somebody else if she refused, and it might not have been a big success like it was. So it’s very much a matter of fate.”