Ann Hui triple-feature! I’ve been looking for Boat People for a long time, so when the Criterion Channel released it, the timing to explore her catalog felt right.
The Secret is Hui’s directorial debut and a key part of the Hong Kong New Wave. I imagine it slots in there for a lot of reasons – there’s realistic, graphic violence; the style is intentionally murky at times (including jarring flashbacks); the depiction of society isn’t the prettiest (brothels, a mentally disturbed young man living in poverty with his mother, questionable cops, jealous lovers); and it features female main characters and their plights.
This film must be a big influence on Bong Joon-ho. There’s hints of Mother–
-and of Memories of Murder (leaving out the red jacket, which also feels relevant):
Hui’s technique is bold and emotive, including a big vertigo-shot-
-and a motif of direct overheads:
The latter is not only very beautiful, but also gives the film a graphic feeling, while emphasizing architecture and living conditions.
The Secret is a bit of a ghost story. It feels like Diabolique in moments. I love this beat when Lin (Sylvia Chang) spots a particularly recognizable foot sticking out from behind a wall. Hui zooms in, and as the foot pulls away – too slowly – there’s a perfect scraping sound. It’s chilling.
But Hui seems to use the horror to reflect the mood. It’s not an optimistic scenario – clandestine pregnancies and battered bodies in the woods – and the film has the feel that not only danger, but just plain pessimism is everywhere.
Hui’s 1982 film can be a tough watch. What an ending!
DEFINITE SPOILERS below.
Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese photojournalist, returns to Vietnam after it’s Liberation, and finds that things aren’t what they seem.
Hui again plays on some horror tropes here, but less explicitly than in The Secret. There’s a “that which lies beneath” feel to the film, and its raw plotting, including a brutal death in each of the acts pulls no punches.
The script revolves around various NEZ’s – New Economic Zones – some of which have been sanitized for public view. Akutagawa discovers that what he’s seeing has been staged for his camera. That feeling of impending doom in a political narrative reminds me a bit of Costa-Gavras.
But despite the harsh narrative, much of the film feels quite tender. I don’t know Hui’s backstory with Vietnam, but I’d be surprised if she didn’t have one. Scenes like this one, between Akutagawa and Nguyen (Mengshi Qi), are so gently shot, with a deep nostalgia. It’s also just the scene itself – these two men are something like outsiders: Akutagawa literally, and Nguyen is just a step outside of the party.
That push on Nguyen really gives him some power. It comes back around later for his exit. It’s a great cinematographic way to show some form of allegiance.
Hui’s love for reflections and mirror shots is on display here. I like this one, where Akutagawa and Cam Nuong (Season Ma) chat and she mistakes his intentions:
I like that Hui doesn’t hide that it’s a mirror. It isn’t fancy that way, which suits the pretty direct narrative of the film. It’s stylistic, but also links to the relationship here, which moves from cold to warm to nearly sexual to parental. The blocking of characters and camera keeps things as distant as you can get in a small space – they’re physically far apart and we don’t even look at them directly. The pan and Nuong’s movement ostensibly bring them closer together, but the chair in the foreground still divides them.
There’s a memorably difficult scene where Cam Nuong and her brother ransack dead bodies:
The performances here are swift and casual. It’s a great bit of directing – they’ve done this before, they’ve seen this before, survival comes before grief.
I like that third shot above which looks like a posed photograph (with a young Andy Lau!). It should. Akutagawa is shooting, and Hui’s coverage keeps us occasionally in his lens. I like thinking of perspective in films, and I try to remember that perspective and strict POV are not the same. Only one of the six images above is a POV. It’s Akutagawa’s, as noted. That makes sense. This is his film. The first two shots are bold and tight. Their purpose: blood and speed. So if we divide these 6 shots into groups of 2 we see a good evolution:
First two shots: “looting” and movement; the dynamic camera placement isn’t a strict POV, but is for ugly shock. We’re in the action.
Second two shots: a break for character and relocating us with Akutagawa. We’re with the protagonist.
Third two shots: “world view” and third party. We witness.
The ending of Boat People. Man oh man. It ain’t happy. But it’s real and there’s a sense of the future. Cam Nuong’s boat departs. Hui shoots it like the thriller moment it is: pulling focus along the rope ripping free in the foreground; the hull pulling away in shadow:
Cut to Nuong (she’s the future) and dissolve to Akutagawa, aflame – literally – collapsing on the dock. It’s a startling, brutal image:
They’ve switched places. She was the one “in line” to die and he was set to return.
A Simple Life
Fast-forward to 2011 and Hui’s film A Simple Life. Andy Lau is Roger, a film producer (or is he in the art department? I was a bit confused there). His former housekeeper, Ah Tao (Deannie Ip) suffers a stroke and moves into a nursing home.
The title of the film is appropriate. There’s plenty of humor and drama in here, but it plays methodically and the weight of the movie really rests on the shoulders of the two leads and how much we feel their relationship. We feel it a lot.
The style is patient. Characters often settle into a position and Hui’s handheld camera finds them in unique ways. Those reflections:
I was really taken by some ways that Hui transitions from scene to scene and elides time.
Like here, towards the third act. Roger leaves the nursing home. He looks to Ah Tao. We get a weird, post-slow-motion moment in that second shot below. It’s the one beat in the entire film that jumps out as completely off. I wonder if they just needed to extend the shot for rhythmic purposes and it was all they had. I hope that’s the explanation because otherwise it feels so ham-handed.
Anyway, back to Roger, he exits, and Hui holds on the empty door:
Cut to a low angle of the city and sky, to empty benches, to an empty frame…which pans and pulls focus to find them walking towards camera:
We’ve moved ahead in time here, and Hui, cinematographer Nelson Lik-wai Yu, and editors Chi-Leung Kwong and Manda Wai find the frames and pace to help us there. The obvious transition is emptiness to emptiness. The empty door to skyline shot are also something like a graphic match – a vertical center-frame surrounded by blue. That’s pretty and it guides us – this shouldn’t be a harsh cut. I think that finding that sense of stillness and ease was probably a challenge. The next cut is the true shift. It’s more horizontal (the benches), but there are still relevant elements (blue building in the center background, vertical elements at the top of the frame), which leads us to the horizontal shot that brings us truly into the scene. It’s all so beautifully designed.
They achieve it again at the end of this scene. Roger walks away and we push towards Ah Tao. Cut to her POV of Roger. He walks back and out of frame. We hold on emptiness for a beat:
The soft focus of the previous shot has a loose similarity to the soft blanket that we’re introduced to next-
But this transition, should feel harsher otherwise. Time is moving rapidly. Ah Tao is deteriorating. So the same pains aren’t taken to lighten the transition. In the first transition we go static to static. Here we go static to movement. There’s a new energy. The change is larger and more pressing.
The camera continues its pan and becomes something pretty different. It finds the ambulance, uses a hospice worker to move away, and then slowly retreats, panning back and forth-
-finding onlookers (Ah Tao’s friends), and ending with, yet again, emptiness:
It’s a gentle camera, and one that doesn’t gawk. If we went to the ambulance, as would be most director’s instinct, we’d be too melodramatic for this film. This movement, while daring, is also respectful. We step away and watch with the others as a friend leaves.