Ann Hui’s voice is an uncommon one in world cinema. Probably the most acclaimed of the Hong Kong New Wave directors, Hui began her career in the late 1970s in a film industry then dominated by kung fu movies. She continued to make films in Hong Kong for over thirty years, striking an almost impossible balance between art, politics and commercial success. She has been described as an ‘innovator within the mainstream’, working on relatively low budget productions with Hong Kong stars such as Andy Lau and Chow Yun Fat, and even bringing the legendary Deanie Ip out of retirement to star in her recent film A Simple Life (2011). Her latest The Golden Era (2014), a period film about the Chinese writer Xiao Hong which screens at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.
The groundbreaking Hong Kong New Wave, unbeknownst to Hui at the time, would help transform the identity of Hong Kong cinema from the 1980s onwards. Taking cinema out of the studios and into the streets of Hong Kong, Hui and New Wave contemporaries such as Allen Fong, have been lauded for being thematically and stylistically refreshing. But, according to Hui, the movement was something of an accident. “We didn’t call ourselves ‘New Wave’ at the time”, she claims. “(The movement) was named by Clifton Ko Chi-Sum, who was also a new wave film director. After I finished my first movie he interviewed me for a student magazine called The Big Thumb. In his article he wrote: “Qe are the New Wave”, and it stuck. Following this, writers would always refer to us as New Wave directors.
It was by chance we all had the same background, were more or less the same age, we all returned to Hong Kong from studying abroad, and worked in TV before making films. But we never called ourselves the New Wave – our style and themes varied. Some of us even made kung fu movies! We were just colleagues.” However, with the New Wave firmly established, Hui set herself apart with the distinct realist style of Boat People in 1982, the third in a trilogy of films featuring the lives of refugees from Communist Vietnam. Hui had spent four years with refugees who had fled Vietnam for Hong Kong, listening to their stories. However the trilogy itself was also an accident, according to Hui, who “didn’t intend to shoot three films about Vietnamese people, but it somehow ended up that way”.
Hui expresses a similarly matter-of-fact attitude toward her entire career, claiming she didn’t plan much of her work. Despite being noted as a film maker who takes interest in social issues, with films such as The Way We Are (2008) examining the lives of people living in a poor Hong Kong community, she distances herself from this label claiming that “When I shoot films, I don’t worry about ideology. When we choose the subject we are aware that there might be some ramifications, or the subject might be relevant or something like that. Afterwards when we start shooting we just get down to the details; the emotional elements, its more important to me to find the right actions and gestures.” But she agrees her films are open to a variety of readings. “I don’t argue with people’s interpretations, I stopped arguing!”
Hui’s presence in the Hong Kong film industry is distinct as a female director. The Golden Era centres upon the life of a female writer in 1920s China, a story she was drawn to because “her life was very full of incidents”. This touches upon Hui’s inclination for the melodramatic, and many of her previous works such as the colourful yet heartbreaking The Postmodern Life of my Aunt (2006) and All About Love (2010) also place women in the central roles, dealing with themes such as mother-daughter relationships and female homosexuality. Yet Hui insists that she does not see herself as someone who wishes to make films for or about women. “I don’t approach a subject because it is to do with women. My films about women are the ones that get better results. They often say my female characters are well observed, well shot, and well acted, and the male characters are not so well observed. Maybe it stands to reason because I’m a woman, so I have more confidence.”
The label Hui is more comfortable with is that of Hong Kong director. Hui was born in China, moving to Hong Kong as a child. She has made films in both Hong Kong and China, and The Golden Era is a China/Hong Kong co-production. When asked whether national identity in cinema still applies she agrees. “More and more I consider myself a Hong Kong filmmaker. I feel the way I shoot movies and my attitude is typically Hong Kongese. Hong Kong people don’t like to talk about grand themes, but it doesn’t mean we are not serious. We just tend to deal with subjects in a very light way. I feel that the spirit of Hong Kong cinema is a rejection of deep tragedies and philosophies. I think this is to do with the colonial attitude. We were brought up being told not to think about politics, so we always think in a more practical way.”
Is this true of younger generations of Hong Kong filmmakers? “The younger generations don’t think that way. They are not satisfied simply to start with practical things; they start with a philosophical premise about what society should be like. They are more serious.” Hui is suggestive that this may be a positive turn for Hong Kong cinema. “I’ve been thinking quite a lot these past few years that we were not trained to be very thoughtful, we repeat what others say life should be instead of thinking for ourselves.”
The full Glasgow Film Festival 2015 programme, ticketing details and more can be viewed at glasgowfilm.org.