Most film-makers have filmographies which consist of peaks and troughs, usually ranging from the very good to the forgettable. But not Cantonese director Ann Hui On-Wah, who over a thirty-plus year career has regularly made movies of the highest standard, both commercially and artistically. Her last film The Golden Era was a rare misstep in this gilded career. The good news is her latest release, Our Time Will Come is a reassuring return to form.
Our Time Will Come is a China-Hong Kong production to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Mainland rule. The film covers one of the darkest periods in Hong Kong’s modern history: the occupation of Hong Kong by the Japanese during World War 2. These years of military rule are seen mostly through the activities of real-life resistance fighters Blackie Lau and Fong Lan, played by Mainland stars Eddy Peng and Zhou Xun. Canto actress Deannie Yip nearly steals the movie as Lan’s mother, whose hardscrabble existence is plainly about trying to survive the occupation.
The movie boasts a who’s who of veteran and contemporary Cantonese actors, of which Tony Leung Ka-Fai (Cold War 2) is a standout as a Hong Kong everyman character who has witnessed the best and the worst of the city’s recent history.
Director Hui and writer He Jiping seem to be channeling much of John Woo’s Red Cliff when it comes to heroic figures. Not surprisingly, Hui shows us many characters who could be described as heroic, not for physical acts of great bravery — but through attitudes, personal decisions, small acts of defiance. And not just the Chinese: a cultured albeit conflicted Japanese security officer, Yamaguchi (Nagase Masatoshi) challenges the usual crude screen caricatures we’ve come to expect. It’s this melting pot of characters which drives the narrative.
This film prompted me to look for other Chinese movies about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Strangely, there aren’t many and I could only find two titles in the past nearly forty years: Hong Kong 1941, a drama starring Chow Yun-Fat from 1984, and a Wong Jing exploitation pic, 1941: Hong Kong on Fire (1995). (I’d be happy to hear of some more!) Otherwise, there are dozens of Canto films using WW2 Hong Kong as a colorful backdrop for story-lines, including an early Ann Hui pic, Love in a Fallen City (1984).
It seems Mainland cities like Nanjing and Shanghai are the chosen ones when it comes to the Japanese invading China via the cinema. The following are some of the more notable and recent titles: T F Mou’s Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre (1995), Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War (2011) and Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death (2009).
A big surprise for viewers will be the fine performance Hui draws from star Eddy Peng (To the Fore) who is mainly known for his pretty boy looks and vacuous roles in Chinese TV soapies and movies. In this film he’s cast as the brash, charismatic leader of the East River Guerilla Group, and in a short time he reaches the top of Japan’s Most Wanted list. But there’s also a quiet intelligence which Hui imbues in this patriot. It’s a deep, strong performance from Peng which in many ways anchors the film.
Similar to Peng, Zhou Xun (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate) has received much exposure through big budget films, but the promise she first showed years ago in Suzhou River (2000) has never been properly fulfilled. Under Hui’s direction as Lan she demonstrates what an accomplished actor she can be, as we watch her life inexorably change when instinctively she understands the threat the Japanese pose to her world. And as a young school teacher, she initially relishes the visceral thrill of living dangerously.
Hong Kong actors Ivana Wong and Jessie Li are memorable in their small but significant parts as Lan’s compatriots in the resistance organisation.
Hui’s depiction of screen violence in Our Time Will Come is unsettling, primarily for what it isn’t It is style-free and choreographed in a desperate, messy fashion where gun fights are often shambolic and hand grenades don’t always explode when they should. The use of knives is more common and lethal, as shown in a scene where Lau attacks two Chinese spies (played by Canto actors Sam Lee and Tony Ho) working for the Kenpeitai, the Japanese secret police. The film is cloaked in a palpable fear which very much reminded me of Jean-Pierre Melville’s WW2 flick Army of Shadows. Violent death can happen to anyone in Hong Kong at any time and at any location. Some of the best passages of suspense in this film are as simple as a person walking away or walking towards someone.
The final third of this picture belongs to Deannie Yip’s character Fong, who is the polar opposite to Blackie Lau: a citizen trapped in Hong Kong who knows how tenuous life can be. She sees more people die from starvation than killed by bullets. At one point Fong tells her daughter “Pork is worth more than gold…” By day she sees the streets littered with the dead and at night she dreads the home invasions by gangs of drunken soldiers. She is alarmed and angered when Lan becomes a member of the resistance. As with many of Hui’s films, she fleshes out the mother-daughter relationship in such a natural and believable manner. It’s this familial blend of understanding and acceptance which leads the movie into the tragedy of the final act.
This wartime pic looks set to finish with an elaborate action sequence involving an attack by the resistance fighters on the Hong Kong headquarters of the Kenpeitai. But just watch how director Hui shapes and moulds this scenario, and you’ll begin to understand why Ann Hui is one of the world’s great film-making talents.
As you would expect with a production of this size, the technical credits are first class. Cinematographer Nelson Yu (A Touch of Sin) contrasts the lush beauty of rural China with the harsh urban environment of occupied Hong Kong. He has also lensed one of the best images from a Chinese film this year: a beautiful screen moment which seamlessly links the past with the present.
Hui’s regular screen composer Joe Hisaishi literally provides good value with his soundtrack as the best of this music is directly lifted from his score for Hui’s 2006 pic The Postmodern Life of My Aunt.
Our Time Will Come is an excellent film and if you can see it on the big screen it’s an even better experience. But whatever you do, don’t pass up an opportunity to see this movie.
THE STORY OF ANN HUICantonese film director Ann Hui is a major figure in Asian and world cinema. She was an integral part of Hong Kong’s New Wave cinema of the late 1970s and early 80s.
To me, she is a natural film-maker, a point proven by her ability to work successfully in both the commercial and art house spheres. Her movies were sometimes so good they defied genre expectations. It was this type of movie-making which she excelled at.
With her current work in China it will be interesting to see where she goes and what she does in the future. But for the moment, this is an overview of how she got to where she is today.
Ann Hui On-Wah was born in 1947 in Anshan, North Eastern China. Her mother was Japanese and her father Chinese. The family moved to Hong Kong in the mid-1950s, where Hui was first schooled at a Christian College and then attended Hong Kong University. In the early-1970s, Hui studied film-making in the UK at the London Film School. She returned to Hong Kong in the mid-70s and began work in television as a writer-director with the TVB studio. Her documentaries and small screen dramas quickly found favour with viewers and critics. The big screen beckoned…
Her debut feature film was in 1979, titled The Secret, and was a dark, stylish murder mystery starring Taiwanese actress Sylvia Chang. The film attracted critical acclaim, locally and internationally. The Secret was released three months after Tsui Hark’s stunning martial-arts / horror pic The Butterfly Murders. The New Wave had begun to break.Hui’s next two pictures: The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People (1982) became known as her Refugee films. Both movies tell stories of families fleeing Vietnam for the safe harbour of Hong Kong. They were raw and emotional outsider tales with powerhouse performances from future stars Chow Yun-Fat and Cora Miao. On a surface level they were overtly non-political films, but they sure struck a chord with Hong Kong audiences who made them big commercial successes. Ann Hui was now being seen as the pivotal figure of Hong Kong’s New Wave cinema.
From the mid-1980s, Hui embraced the Cantonese film industry (as did many of the New Wave film-makers) and made high quality, crowd pleasing genre pics. Some of the best examples of these are: the horror-comedy The Spooky Bunch and a martial-arts double-bill from author Jin Yong, Princess Fragrance and The Romance of the Book and Sword. She well understood the vagaries of the Hong Kong film industry and seemed content to be one of six directors on Swordsman, a big budget martial-arts pic from the late 1980s.
Ann Hui describes her 1990 drama, Song of the Exile, as being “My most personal film”. It tells the story of a fractious relationship between a Japanese mother and her Chinese daughter. Superbly acted by Maggie Cheung as the daughter and Liu Hsiao-Fen as the mother, it is a film about ethnicity and identity, of secrets and lies and lives lived in the shadows of others.
From the mid-1980s, director Hui and her films have been feted by European and American cultural organisations and International Film Festivals (ie. in 2014 she was a judge at the Venice International Film Festival). In Asia, she is a major artistic figure whose work is respected and regularly honoured with awards. Apart from Chinatown audiences, in Australia the cinema of Ann Hui remains unknown.
In the 1990s, Hui moved away from the more commercial projects to smaller budget films with an emphasis on character and story. She directed movies such as Ordinary Heroes, which featured Anthony Wong (Ip Man: The Final Fight) as a controversial Hong Kong priest, and Summer Snow which had Josephine Siao and Roy Chiao as a husband and wife coping with the ravages of dementia. During this period she was making on average one new film a year, a ratio which she maintained well into the early 2000s.
Ann Hui continues to make movies in Hong Kong and in the past decade has been forming strong links with Mainland film companies.Recent Canto productions such as Night and Fog and A Simple Life show she is still a formidable film-making talent. In Night and Fog, which is based on a notorious murder case, Simon Yam (Election) gives a career-defining performance. Under Hui’s skillful direction, Yam explores the light and dark of his afflicted screen character — and the result is film-making of the highest order.
One of my favourite Ann Hui pics is the 2006 Mainland production The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, which was filmed in a chilly Shanghai and starred Siqin Gaowa (The Day the Sun Turned Cold). It tells a bittersweet tale of a university scholar’s fall from grace.
Ann Hui turned seventy this year, and it had been rumoured she was planning to retire after finishing A Simple Life. Two films on from there and she is still going strong. The story continues…