Hui, Ann – Critical Biography (Draft)
A key player of the Hong Kong New Wave, Ann Hui has shown great resilience in the course of a sustained and prolific filmmaking career, managing to survive within a tough commercial industry environment while essaying a variety of genres and often returning to the portrayal of ordinary lives and everyday dilemmas within the context of an ever-changing Hong Kong.
Ann Hui studied English and Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong before receiving her film education abroad at the London Film School. Hui worked briefly as an assistant to the director King Hu before she started making television films for Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) and Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). Hui’s socially engaged television work was acclaimed, and she made her feature film debut with The Secret (1979). Along with The Spooky Bunch (1980), Hui’s early films showcased her ability to explore questions regarding Hong Kong’s ever-changing cultural identity while satisfying the demands of commercial genre filmmaking.
Hui’s interest in the plight of Vietnamese refugees led her to make the films Boat People (1981), set in Saigon under communist rule, and The Story of Woo Viet (1981), a story about Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong. Hui, however, quickly departed from the gritty realism of her Vietnam films for two sumptuous literary adaptations: Love in a Fallen City (1984), a Shaw Brothers production based on Eileen Chang’s novella, and a two-part adaptation of Jin Yong (Louis Cha)’s martial-arts epic, The Book and the Sword (The Romance of Book and Sword, 1986 & Princess Fragrance, 1987). She turned to the subject of political activism in Starry is the Night (1988) before making one of her most acclaimed films, the autobiographical Song of the Exile (1990), a work that dealt with Hui’s mixed parentage (Hui was born in Manchuria to a Chinese father and a Japanese mother) against the background of the Second World War and Seventies Hong Kong.
After working on an unsuccessful action vehicle for Andy Lau (Zodiac Killers, 1991) and a cross-cultural comedy set in China (My American Grandson, 1990), Hui turned her attention to daily life in contemporary Hong Kong, with two affectionate portraits of women confronted with everyday dilemmas, featuring respectively the veteran actress Josephine Siao (Summer Snow, 1995) and action star Michelle Yeoh (Ah Kam, 1996).
From 1997 to the Present
On the surface, Hui’s post-’97 output consists of an eclectic mix of works belonging to wildly different genres (essay film, horror-comedy, period adaptation, realist drama, etc.) that testify once again to the director’s continued balancing act between commercial assignments and personal projects within an increasingly challenging industry environment. Closer examination, however, reveals that Hui has maintained her interest in chronicling the lives of the ordinary within the societal context of a changing Hong Kong as well as that of a Mainland China now undergoing vast processes of transformation.
In 1997, the year of the Handover, Hui directed both a lavish, Shanghai-set adaptation of Eileen Chang’s novel Eighteen Springs (1997) – featuring an all-star cast led by Leon Lai and Anita Mui – as well as a low-budget DV documentary (As Time Goes By, 1997) about growing up in colonial Hong Kong that includes numerous reminiscences about her college days as a student at the University of Hong Kong. Two films that Hui made shortly afterwards seem to echo or correspond to earlier works by the director: Ordinary Heroes (1999), a drama about social and political activism in Hong Kong, revisits or reconsiders themes and motifs first explored in Starry Is the Night (1988), while July Rhapsody (2002) – the portrait of a high school teacher who undergoes a form of mid-life crisis when a student has a crush on him – seems to posit itself as a companion piece to Summer Snow (1995), Hui’s earlier account of a middle-aged woman coping with a variety of issues in her life.
Aside from a genre assignment she accepted largely for commercial reasons (Visible Secret, 2001), Hui went on to make two films set in contemporary China: Jade Goddess of Mercy (2003), a police drama based on popular fiction starring Zhao Wei that was not well-received, and The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006), a highly anticipated comedy-drama about the confusion of values in today’s PRC that invites comparison with My American Grandson (1990), Hui’s Shanghai-set comedy made over a decade before. The film’s high-profile star casting of Siqin Gaowa and Chow Yun-Fat generated much buzz, but Hui refused to be pinned down and chose to steer clear of comedy and star power for her subsequent feature.
For The Way We Are (2008), Hui turned to digital filmmaking and was able to realize a low-budget, personal project valorizing everyday life in the low-income residential area of Tin Shui Wai. Well-received by local critics, it led to a dark and harrowing follow-up film (starring Simon Yam and Zhang Jingchu) based on a real-life case of domestic violence and murder that took place in the same neighborhood (Night and Fog, 2009). Hui’s Tin Shui Wai diptych attracted great publicity and controversy, and for a time, the veteran New Waver found herself once again at the center of critical discussions regarding the future of Hong Kong cinema.
Hui, however, quickly changed directions, and made a comedy featuring lesbian characters within a yuppie, urban professional milieu (All About Love, 2010), before directing the intimate, low-key drama, A Simple Life (2011), about an elderly female servant’s relationship to her younger master. The film won the Best Actress award for star Deanie Yip at the Venice Film Festival, and became a local box-office success as well as one of Hui’s most well-received works in years. Refusing to rest on laurels, Hui is currently at work on a period film starring Tang Wei (The Golden Era, 2014) about the Chinese writer Xiao Hong, a celebrated female author who moved to and died in Hong Kong during the war years.