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February 14, 2013

Boat People

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Tau ban no hoi
Ann Hui - 1982
Edko Films Region 3 DVD

A little more than thirty years after its initial release, is it possible for Boat People to be considered objectively? This question is raised because a variety of political aspects to the film, a reading or misreading of the film and of Ann Hui's intentions, may have derailed the anticipated commercial and critical viability outside of Asia, in turn causing Hui to be less known or even unknown by those claiming to champion female filmmakers.

This is a film that in 2005 was considered by the Hong Kong Film Association to be the eighth best Chinese language movie in the past one hundred years. At the time of its initial release, this was the film that brought Hui her first awards as a director. In the west, Boat People was pulled from competition at Cannes, and reviewed negatively by Andrew Sarris and J. Hoberman in the Village Voice when the film played at the New York Film Festival. An explanation for the controversy was presented by Harlan Kennedy in Film Comment, in October 1983. Kennedy's optimism regarding Ann Hui's career turned out to be unrealized as only a small number of films would receive even a DVD release outside of Asia. Even the award winning and critically acclaimed A Simple Life was given only a token theatrical release. With the changes in the Hong Kong film industry, Hui has experienced moments of uncertainty regarding the viability of her career.

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The original title translates as "Run towards the angry sea". I would assume that there is something of Hui in the main character, a Japanese photojournalist, Akutagawa, in Vietnam, 1978, as Hui's own filmmaking career began as a documentarian. Janet Maslin wrote about the "manipulation of material" by Hui, but manipulation is also the subject of the film. Akutagawa is used to provide the world with the image of Vietnam that the government wants to present. Getting involved with a family that lives on the margins of Danang, Akutagawa uses his contacts to attempt to provide a more truthful documentation of life in Vietnam. One of Akutagawa's connections is a woman who served as a mistress to men in power in Vietnam - French, American and Vietnamese. Hui would be able to attest to how documentaries would be no more or less objective or truthful than commercial narrative films.

Setting aside the politics and historical context, what Boat People is more concerned with is the question of the role of the professional observer. Akutagawa's dilemma is more heightened by his particular circumstance, where any pretense of objectivity evaporates as he becomes more involved in the lives of Cam Nuong and her family. And while the origins of the film are to be found in Ann Hui's very real interest in the lives of her characters, there is also the more universal question of a journalist's choices, both professional and personal, in situations where, let's call it human decency, call for intervention in the lives of others. What makes Boat People remain intriguing is that there are no easy answers, nor do the characters have any choices that are free of compromise.

Boat People has also gained interest as being the film that kickstarted Andy Lau's career. At the time, Lau was an unknown actor in his second film, brought to the attention of Ann Hui by Boat People star George Lam and Chow Yun-Fat. It was Chow who Hui wanted to cast in the role of small time thief To Minh. Lau character is also the secret lover to the mistress, played by Cora Miao. Chow would work with Ann Hui in her following film, Love in a Fallen City, opposite Miao. Boat People star George Lam would reunite with Cora Miao in Sylvia Chang's film, Passion. As an actress, Chang starred in Ann Hui's debut feature, The Secret.

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Posted by peter at February 14, 2013 07:15 AM