Imagine an attractive passerby; they catch your eye because of their looks, posture, and aura. But, of course, we all know that, ultimately, it is their inner beauty that counts. However, this inner beauty constantly interplays with the effects of their outward appearance.
Suppose we were to compare a good film to this charming individual. In that case, their outward appearance might correspond to the film’s use of sound and image, its meticulous mise-en-scène, its performances, and its dramatic power. Meanwhile, their inner beauty would parallel the film’s narrative structure, treatment of the subject matter, build-up of mood, and intellectual depth. Filmmaker Ann Hui, a pioneer of Hong Kong New Wave cinema, moves audiences with elegance in her early work that is immediately recognisable. But the subtler depth within her later films is worth savouring time and again.
The appeal of Ann Hui’s films stems from a deep interest in human nature, which is also her genuine pursuit. It probes into the core of being with curiosity and humility for the unknown. Hui set the bar high at the start of her creative journey. Her first feature film, The Secret (1979), blew the minds of moviegoers with its brisk narrative pace, bold editing, abundant imagery, and incredible detail in the portrayal of community life. However, beyond the twists, turns, and awe-inspiring narrative of the mystery genre—not to mention the various ingenious designs of characterisation, setting, and mood—the true emotional power of the film lies in its keen sensitivity towards human nature and the dauntlessness with which the camera captures the darker side of the human heart. The profundity of her debut film seems to have foreshadowed her favour for topics of the spiritual and the supernatural, seen in films such as The Spooky Bunch and Visible Secret.
Ann Hui may be a less prolific filmmaker (creating some twenty films over forty years). Still, she is undoubtedly diligent, moving deftly across genres, including thriller, supernatural, historical, martial arts, art house, LGBTQ cinema, and many others. She is particularly fond of literary adaptations, including The Romance of Book and Sword, Princess Fragrance, Love in a Fallen City, Eighteen Springs, and The Golden Era.
She also keeps her finger on the pulse of social concerns and changes. Her broad filmography has been inspired by wartime anti-Japanese activities in the underground (Our Time Will Come), student protests and social movements from the 1970s onwards (Starry Is The Night and Ordinary Heroes), the influx of Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s (Boat People and The Story of Woo Viet), as well as various mystery cases in the city (The Secret, Zodiac Killers and Night and Fog). Behind Hui’s camera is a boundless curiosity about the worlds of real life and filmmaking—and the openness of a child who dares to stay true to her nature. This approach brings forth the beauty and fidelity of her films in all their greatness.
We cannot speak of Hui’s films’ social and contemporary dimensions without mentioning their intuitive, affective side, which is characteristic of her work. It is not hard to see why, as a female filmmaker, Hui’s cinematic perspective is perhaps most candidly expressed in her representations of women. This may be why Summer Snow, The Stunt Woman, July Rhapsody, The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, The Way We Are, and A Simple Life are often hailed as her best works. Women who precariously juggle family and work, who marry early and have children, who survive their spouses and live on with their children, who count their days at a time of social restructuring, and who embrace and enjoy marginal jobs—they are all extraordinarily captivating on Ann Hui’s screen. They, like Hui herself, radiate an inner beauty as, amidst the cruelties of the world, they always do their best in whatever they undertake. Time is on their side, with Hui’s characters not growing any less engaging as they age.
Critics like to read Ann Hui’s films in terms of ‘humanistic concerns’. The human element points outwards towards society and civilisation and inwards towards a fundamental human nature. Her filmography embodies a look of longing from the inside out, one that we cherish and admire.
This article was originally published on M+ Stories in conjunction with the screening programme, M+ Screenings: The Film Life of Ann Hui.
Long Tin, an experienced editor and journalist, writes reviews on cinema, theatre, books, and cultural phenomena. He has published twenty books and recently worked as part-time lecturer and curator of various cultural activities, including Cattle Depot Village Book Fair 2003. He was the president of the Hong Kong Film Critics Society from 2003 to 2007, and was one of the jury members of the 47th Golden Horse Awards (2010).