Ann Hui is one of the most distinguished directors in the first new wave of Hong Kong film making, which emerged on the international cinema scene during the 1980s. While many of the period?s films are Eastern variations on the popular gangster and action-adventure genres of Hollywood, Hui?s best work is more personal in nature. Her films reflect on cultural displacement, and the effect on individuals who are uprooted from one country and culture and planted in another, either by personal choice or political or economic necessity. Hui is especially concerned with how her characters respond to their new surroundings, and how they are affected when they return?also by choice or necessity?to their homelands.
Hui also has directed films that are more generic in nature. The Secret, her first feature, is a based-on-fact suspense drama about a double murder. The Spooky Bunch, her follow-up, is a satiric ghost story. Her major cinematic concerns emerged in The Story of Woo Viet, a drama about a South Vietnamese refugee in Manila, and Boat People, her most lauded early film, a semidocumentary account of the plight of downtrodden Vietnamese after the 1975 Liberation, whose only hope for survival lies in their becoming boat people.
Familial conflict is a key theme in Hui?s work. In the two-part historic epic Princess Fragrance and The Romance of Book & Sword, she focused on the dissension between two brothers, one a Manchurian emperor and the other the head of the secret anti-Manchu Red Flower Society. My American Grandson is the story of an elderly Chinese man looking after his 12-year-old American grandson. Here, Hui acutely examines the cultural differences between East and West, the manner in which American-reared Chinese have lost touch with their native culture, and the importance of understanding that culture. By far her best recent film is Summer Snow, a family comedy-drama about May Sun, a working woman with a husband and teenage son, who has never gotten along with her father-in-law but must take him in upon the death of his wife. The scenario follows May Sun?s struggle to deal with the situation, which is exacerbated when the father-in-law is afflicted with Alzheimer?s disease.
To date, Song of the Exile is Hui?s most intensely intimate work, if only because it so obviously is semiautobiographical. This slice-of-life, set in 1973, tells the story of Hueyin, a 25-year-old woman who (like Hui) was raised in Hong Kong and, at the scenario?s outset, completes a film school education in London. Hueyin returns to Hong Kong to attend her younger sister?s wedding, where she recalls the supportive grandparents with whom she spent much of her childhood and clashes with her manipulative mother who attempts to stifle her dreams and her individuality.
For Hueyin, the cultural revolution in China and the war in Vietnam are little more than news items reported on television. As such, she pays them no mind. Yet in the wake of such events, families are separated and individuals are forced to flee their homes and become refugees. If she ever is to attain self-understanding, Hueyin must realize that the wars and revolutions of the recent past, coupled with economic realities, have separated, and affected, the various members of her family.
On the surface, Song of the Exile chronicles the clashing personalities and value-systems of a mother and daughter. But more to the point, it is the story of a displaced family and the cultural and nationalistic barriers that isolate its members. Hueyin?s mother was born in Japan, lived most of her adult life in Hong Kong, and in the film?s final section returns to Japan. Hueyin?s grandparents reside in Canton, and resent her mother because she is Japanese. Hueyin spent her youth in Canton as well as Hong Kong, studied in London, returns to Hong Kong, travels with her mother to Japan, and visits her grandparents in Canton. Upon her marriage, Hueyin?s sister and her husband emigrate to Canada.
When an individual moves to a foreign country out of choice, as Hueyin did when she went off to study in London, it can be an enlightening experience. But when you are forced to move, the result is altogether different as the individual sadly and tragically feels displaced and loses touch with native culture and familial roots. Hueyin comes in touch with this differentiation as she spends time with her mother, and journeys with her back to Japan. At the outset of Song of the Exile, Hueyin merrily romps through the London streets with her classmates. She is an idealistic schoolgirl, with the promise of a happy life before her. But in the course of the story, she changes as she becomes more worldly and realizes there is much more between herself and her mother than superficial generational conflict. She comes to understand the source of her mother?s unhappiness and frustration. Indeed, in the last shot of the film, Hueyin is crying.
During the 1990s, Ann Hui has gravitated to directing commercial genre films, and working in behind-the-scenes capacities for other filmmakers. One of her latest works, The Stunt Woman, tells the story of Ah Kam, a movie stuntwoman. But even here, the theme of displacement is present: Ah Kam is born in China but comes to Hong Kong to pursue her career; she is separated from her family, and struggles to acclimate herself to her new environment. In the mid-1990s, Hui unsuccessfully attempted to raise money for an ambitious, potentially controversial project: a film about the people of Hong Kong at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre.?