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Medium shot of a man and a woman in a film scene.


When the Hong Kong New Wave film movement emerged in 1979, critical response towards it was mixed due to the works’ uneven quality. Among the auteurs associated with this period, Ann Hui undoubtedly enjoyed the smoothest start to her filmmaking career. Her four earliest films—The Secret, The Spooky Bunch, The Story of Woo Viet, and Boat People—demonstrated stylistic breadth, consistent quality, and constant improvement of skill and artistic control, turning her into a favourite among critics.

When I was chief editor of Film Bi-weekly magazine, I ran a three-issue special series on Hui around the time Boat People was released. This article is an excerpt from that series and explores The Story of Woo Viet and Boat People, especially in comparison to Hui’s first two works, The Secret and The Spooky Bunch.


The Story of Woo Viet (‘Woo Viet’) is an important work in Ann Hui’s filmography. It was the first story she conceived by herself following the end of her partnership with screenwriter and frequent collaborator Joyce Chan. Woo Viet also marked Hui’s departure from the burdens of traditions and the past that were evident in The Secret and The Spooky Bunch. Moreover, her reconnection with the realist style of her television days—including by resurfacing topics she had touched upon in Below the Lion’s Rock: The Boy from Vietnam—paved the way for Boat People.

Close-up of two men in a film scene. One man holds the other in a headlock while pointing a gun at his head.

The Story of Woo Viet (1981). Photo: Courtesy of Star Alliance

Due to its pivotal status, Woo Viet boasts the most internal tension among the films in Hui’s repertoire. At first glance, the film seems to demonstrate a disregard for form with its conventional, easy-to-follow account of an assassin story told largely from the protagonist Woo Viet’s (Chow Yun-fat) viewpoint. Beneath the surface, however, the film introduces other perspectives through the discordance between sound and images, and in doing so casts doubt on the narrator’s identity and even the narrative structure as a whole.

These new perspectives are evident when the character Li Lap-quan (Cora Miao) reads three letters written by Woo Viet. On a denotative level, all images are real and happening in the present. Since the first letter had already been sent, its off-screen narration is a flashback that shows a refugee boat drifting into Hong Kong waters. For the second letter, the sound corresponds to the image, with the latter showing Woo Viet writing and Lap-quan reading. The off-screen narration of the third letter at the film’s end is juxtaposed visually with Woo Viet burying Shum Ching (Cherie Chung) at sea—an event that occured before the letter was written. This analysis affirms the image-over-sound convention of visuals reigning supreme, whether it’s in relation to chronology or accuracy. This is also the most intuitive type of reading, with the assumed narrator being the omniscient off-screen director. Going with this logic, the off-screen narrations in the film are only used for irony or economic reasons.

Medium shot of a woman wearing a flannel-type top in a film scene.

The Story of Woo Viet (1981). Photo: Courtesy of Star Alliance

But why can’t image be subordinate to sound? In other words, the three off-screen voiceovers could be occurring in the present while the images depict the fleeting consciousnesses of those who are reading or recalling the letters. If we go down this path, there are two possible scenarios. Firstly, if the narrator is Woo Viet, then the entire film can be seen as his recollection of a past that was triggered by the contents of the letters. This reading lends structural significance to the off-screen narrations, positing them as a bridge between memories and their owner.

Even more interesting, however, is the second scenario,[1] which assumes Lap-quan to be the one reading the letter off-screen even though it is Woo Viet’s voice that audiences hear.[2] The images, meanwhile, also come from Lap-quan’s point of view. Given her secret and unrequited love for Woo Viet, what is shown may simply be figments of her imagination. Seen in this light, the events mentioned in the third letter—of Woo Viet, Shum Ching and Sarm (Lo Lieh) going to the US via Batan Island—could be real, while the events shown on screen of the deaths of Shum Ching and Sarm could be fictitious.

Close-up of a man and a woman in a film scene, with the man's arm around the woman.

The Story of Woo Viet (1981). Photo: Courtesy of Star Alliance

It is worth noting that the off-screen narration of the second letter begins with a shot of Woo Viet writing at his desk. After a montage of images that corresponds to the contents of the letter, the sequence ends with a shot of Lap-quan reading in bed. This last shot has no narrative function, yet it underscores Lap-quan’s viewpoint and the present state that she represents. The shot casts a new light not only on the Chinatown adventures that happen in the Philippines but also on the entire film, as it positions Lap-quan as the narrator and suggests that the events that unfold in the film are the fantasies in her head as she rereads the three letters. As the plot follows Woo Viet to the Philippines in the latter two-thirds of the film, Lap-quan’s absence complies with the convention that the narrator stays off-screen. One could also say that Lap-quan becomes the diegetic double for the director—aka the final and ultimate narrator.


Hui’s two earliest works are comparable in terms of subject matter, concept, and mode of expression. Of course, these similarities have a lot to do with the fact that both films were written by Joyce Chan. Hui enjoyed a lot of creative freedom when directing The Secret. In contrast, The Spooky Bunch was filmed under tremendous production and commercial pressures. By the time Hui made Woo Viet, she was able to successfully merge commercial and artistic considerations, creating a low-budget assassin thriller infused with serious themes. Of course, a certain level of tension still remains in the film, as the work vacillates between tragedy and melodrama, romanticism and realism, as well as stylistic eloquence and minimalist techniques.

After the commercial challenges of The Spooky Bunch and the balancing act of Woo Viet, Hui turned her attention to Boat People, an uncompromisingly ambitious work. Aesthetically, the film marks a stark contrast to The Secret. The Secret bears similarities to the conventions of Russian Formalism, which in the film field is translated into a montage aesthetic with brief, fragmented scenes, numerous close-ups, contrasts between images and imagery, non-linear narrative structures, and the interweaving of time and space. The film also showcases many Expressionist elements, such as flowing camerawork; the frequent use of subjective points of view; and an emphasis on light, shadow, and atmosphere. On the other hand, Boat People finds its foundation in Realism and leans towards the traditions of classical European cinema, which is defined by long, static takes; dominance of medium and full shots; a focus on quiet observations; emphasis on performance and on-screen drama; and a chronological narrative structure.

Three people—a man, a woman, and a child—walking down a sparsely populated street during daytime.

Boat People (1982). Photo: Courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.

Although The Spooky Bunch has its chaotic moments, it belongs in the same camp as The Secret.[3] Meanwhile, Woo Viet features simple techniques and economical mise-en-scène, which mark a departure from the stylised approach of the thriller genre. The contrasts between these two groups of works aren’t just related to form and aesthetics but also appear on the thematic level.

The Secret has a closed form and structure corresponding to the world portrayed in the film. Similarly, The Spooky Bunch is centred on traditional Chinese customs and superstitions. These elements have two things in common: they belong to ancient Chinese folk culture and are all related to death. The child’s birth and the dissipation of madness at the end of The Secret seem to offer a ray of hope. Yet it is Ah Saw’s mother and her irrational belief in tradition that saves the infant and the heroine. In this sense, the film’s diegetic world is still sealed within the shadows of tradition, which is also where salvation is found. Meanwhile, in The Spooky Bunch, after all other efforts have failed, monks are enlisted to fend off vengeful spirits, leading to a face-off between two traditional entities. In the end, one ghost manages to escape, implying that the cycle will continue. In this sense, neither rationality nor willpower can exorcise the spectre of tradition in the world in which the film takes place.

Film still showing a medium shot of two men with jail cell bars visible in the background.

Boat People (1982). Photo: Courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.

By contrast, while Woo Viet also possesses a closed form, its diegetic world is far from hermetic. At the end of the film, Woo Viet returns to the seas by himself, but his sense of morality and resilience are affirmed though his journey of ups and downs. Chinatown represents a sealed-off world, but Woo Viet is able to escape from it. And while the film is bookended by images of the open sea that are tinged with a sense of pessimistic fatalism, these scenes evoke the vibrant positivity of existentialism by reflecting a determined struggle for survival against the pitfalls of fate. While Boat People does not share the heroic and romantic ideals of Woo Viet, the film depicts Akutagawa (George Lam) saving Cam Nuong (Season Ma) and her little brother (Guo Junyi) just before his death, thus affirming his sense of humanity. Meanwhile, characters such as To Minh (Andy Lau), Ah Thanh (Cheung Kam-hung), and Madame (Cora Miao) refuse to accept their fates in the face of adversity.

If The Secret and The Spooky Bunch are drawn to tradition and death, Woo Viet and Boat People, while still sharing a sense of despair about the future, act as affirmations of the present and the will to survive.

Film still showing a tank moving through a street crowded with people.

Boat People (1982). Photo: Courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.

Boat People has a closed form, even though it has a relatively open vision. The film seems to start off slow and scattered, but every detail offers a subtle clue that finds a response further down the line. Obvious examples include Inoue’s (Gus Wong) bookending appearances in the film, the looted GI boots, and Cam Nuong urinating three times. There are also more understated contrasts everywhere. For example, Akutagawa sings for the children twice, each time with differing implications. In the first instance, he is invited to sing to entertain a group of children. This scene is captured in one very wide and static shot. In the second instance, he starts singing when Cam Nuong chokes up. From a close-up shot, the camera pulls back and then pans to the rooftops before dissolving into a wide shot of the port. It’s an unforgettable scene that’s emotionally charged and with precise mise-en-scène.

Another example is when Akutagawa returns to the hotel room for the first time. Right away, he removes his camera from its case and looks through the lens. This scene is echoed by a later one, where Akutagawa packs up his gear before selling his camera. His changed attitude towards his camera symbolises a transformation of his beliefs and identity. Yet another example is the floral garment worn by Cam Nuong’s mother (Hao Jialing) the night she prostitutes herself. The outfit later appears on Cam Nuong as she works at the coffee stall. Like her mother, Cam Nuong is also wearing red lipstick, which suggests she is on the brink of moral degeneration. Indeed, that very night, she tries to offer herself to Akutagawa. There is also the long opening take of the North Vietnamese army entering the city, where the camera pans from the tanks up to the spectators looking from the windows and balconies. Similarly, before Cam Nuong’s mother commits suicide, there is a long pan that sweeps across the faces of curious neighbours. In this scene, however, the camera moves from right to left before finally descending onto the mother’s face. Both scenes show witnesses, yet what they are witnessing are dramatically different. This creates a strong sense of irony, whether it’s in terms of glory and shame, history and the individual, illusion and reality … the list goes on.

Film still of a boy and a girl looking out to sea.

Boat People (1982). Photo: Courtesy of Edko Films Ltd.

If one were to say that the worlds in Woo Viet and Boat People are more open, it could mean the films still harbour some longings and aspirations for the future. In The Secret and The Spooky Bunch, the characters are only concerned with the past or are burdened by it. The future is either never considered or is depicted as history repeating itself. By contrast, Woo Viet and Cam Nuong strive to break free of the past. Although the future is uncertain, what they represent is hope for a new life.

Originally published in issue 96 (7 October 1982) and issue 98 (4 November 1982) of Film Bi-weekly magazine. Image at top: The Story of Woo Viet (1981). Photo: Courtesy of Star Alliance

Ann Hui’s Vietnam Trilogy, including Below the Lion Rock: The Boy from Vietnam, The Story of Woo Viet, and the recently restored Boat People is screening at M+ Cinema. Don’t miss the opportunity to revisit this acclaimed trilogy.

  1. 1.

    This scenario and the reversal of the sound-image relationship were ideas first raised by Jerry Liu.

  2. 2.

    This is the conventional approach for letter-reading scenes in films—that is, the letter is read by the voice of the writer.

  3. 3.

    Although there are numerous long takes, the use of swaying handheld photography emphasizes the contrast within a frame.

Li Cheuk-to
Li Cheuk-to
Li Cheuk-to

Li Cheuk-to is currently Curator-at-large, Hong Kong Film and Media at M+.

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