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13 Dec, 2018 / by Long Tin

The Affectionate Appeal of Ann Hui’s Filmography

A woman stands in a doorway, looking back indoors. She’s leaning against the doorframe with her hands against her back.

The Golden Era (still), 2014. Courtesy of Edko Films Limited

Imagine an attractive passerby; they catch your eye because of their looks, posture, and aura. Of course, we all know that, ultimately, it is their inner beauty that counts. However, this inner beauty is in constant interplay with the effects of their outward appearance.

If we were to compare a good film to this charming individual, their outward appearance might correspond to the film’s use of sound and image, its meticulous mise-en-scène, its performances, and dramatic power. Meanwhile, their inner beauty would parallel the film’s narrative structure, its treatment of subject matter, its build-up of mood, and intellectual depth. Filmmaker Ann Hui, a pioneer of Hong Kong New Wave cinema, moves audiences with an elegance in her early work that is immediately recognisable. But it is the subtler depth from within her later films that is worth savouring time and again.

A cinema lobby card displaying a film still featuring a woman’s close up face staring seriously at a point beyond the viewer. On the left of the film still is a strip of black with the title of the movie written in Chinese, displayed over a hand clutching a rose with red liquid dripping through its fingers.

Film still from The Secret (1979) on a cinema lobby card. Courtesy of Hong Kong Film Services and Hong Kong Film Archive, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

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 a 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 not be the most prolific filmmaker (creating some twenty films across a span of forty years), but she is certainly a diligent one, moving deftly across a number of 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, and 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 her camera is often a boundless curiosity about the worlds of real life and of filmmaking, with the openness of a child who dares to stay true to her nature. This is what carries and brings forth the beauty and fidelity of her films in all their greatness.

A woman stands in an outdoors urban environment, crouching down slightly with her hands on her knees. She is looking with her mouth open in amazement at a group of pigeons in front of her.

Still from Summer Snow (1995). Courtesy of Hong Kong Film Archive, Leisure and Cultural Services Department

We cannot speak of the social and contemporary dimension of Hui’s films without mentioning their intuitive, affective side, which is so 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 at once 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).

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