Veteran Hong Kong director Ann Hui has been a singular voice in the city’s cinema since her debut in the socially focused, late 1970s RTHK series Below the Lion Rock. Her penchant for turning a critical eye on the city’s dispossessed marked her as one of a handful of filmmakers willing, and eager, to tackle material that went beyond ghost stories, titillating comedies and crime thrillers. When The Story of Woo Viet (featuring future superstar Chow Yun-fat) and Boat People (Andy Lau) premiered in 1981, her auteurial persona was all but set. Those films, about the plight of Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, made her bravely political, though that is something Hui is usually quick to disclaim.
It’s hard to deny the socially conscious and vaguely activist tone in Hui’s best work, however, and though she has several light-hearted gems under her belt, like the romantic Eighteen Springs and the clever horror comedy Visible Secret, Hui is at her strongest when she’s dealing with injustices; with the little guy standing up to the system. The proudly leftist Ordinary Heroes (1999), which tracked the progress of a group of activists fighting for social reform, 2008’s The Way We Are (arguably one of her best), about a supportive friendship between two working class women, and the domestic violence, poverty and isolation of Tin Shui Wai in Night and Fog (2009) are exemplary of Hui’s tone, which is usually thick with a Hong Kong accent.
So it comes as a bit of a surprise to see Hui take a turn for the conciliatory as she does in her latest, Our Time Will Come. On the surface, the film has the initial trappings of a wartime romance (which it never really becomes, thanks to Hui avoiding romantic clichés) with a sly subtext about Hong Kong’s seemingly endless struggle for self-determination, and makes for a nice trilogy-capper about occupied Hong Kong, along with Love In A Fallen City (1984) and Song Of The Exile (1990). However, there’s also no denying China-based production company Bona Film Group’s fingerprints; Our Time Will Come opens in mainland China a week ahead of its debut at home.
Loosely based on the exploits of a Second World War underground resistance group, the story begins in Japanese-occupied Hong Kong in 1941. With the Empire vowing to stamp out Chinese culture and homegrown intellectualism, a small band of local fighters have dedicated themselves to smuggling writers, philosophers and artists out of the then-British colony and into the relative safety of mainland China.
No longer a prosperous port city, Hong Kong has been reduced to a rubble-strewn wasteland, with life a daily grind for food and water, and bodies piling up in the streets. Freshly unemployed schoolteacher Fong Lan (Mainland actress Zhou Xun) has dumped her fiancé, Gam-wing (Taiwanese actor Wallace Huo), and lives with her mother, (Hong Kong veteran Deanie Ip). One of her mother’s boarders is writer Mao Dun (Guo Tao), and when the plot to smuggle him out of the city goes awry, Lan meets East River guerrilla crew leader Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng, also from Taiwan) and finds her calling in the resistance. It’s then she learns Gam-wing’s job with the Japanese colonel Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase) at command allows him to double as a spy. Things come to a tragic head when her mother, fearing for Lan’s safety, gets involved too.
While Our Time Will Come trades in many of the undeniably Hui-ish themes that define her oeuvre — the politics of identity, cultural displacement, female, chiefly maternal, bonds — its Hong Kong focused resilience wasn’t enough to save it from losing its opening night slot at last month’s Shanghai International Film Festival, even after the film was grandiosely announced as such back in May at Cannes. It lost that position to Danish filmmaker Bille August’s The Chinese Widow, which ticked more of China censor organisation SAPPRFT’s politically correct boxes (Widow is set in Shanghai and details the wartime valiance of a Chinese woman) and also doubled as a nice calling card for the freshly signed China-Denmark co-production deal. Evidently economics trumps politics.
But it is the lingering, SAPPRFT-approved messaging that’s most confusing. Ultimately, Hong Kong as depicted here has no identity to fight for unless it is enveloped in the loving embrace of the motherland. The city as seen through the filter of the war seems to suggest it never did; either the British or the Japanese were supplying an identity by proxy. It’s all very odd and discombobulating from a filmmaker so previously determined to paint Hong Kong in all its complex and imperfect glory and explore the threads that weave its fabric together or causes it to fray.
Nonetheless, Our Time Will Come has its strong points. Once again putting a woman front and centre of the story, Hui and screenwriter Ho Kei-ping — to date a hired hand on scripts for historical epics like The Warlords and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate — create the kind of vivid and empathetic characters Hui is also known for, and bookending it with mock interviews with Ben (Tony Leung Ka-fai), an elderly man that worked with Lan’s resistance during the war as a kid, is a graceful way to highlight how quickly we often forget about the war’s hidden heroes; in 2017, Ben is a cabbie scrabbling to make ends meet. Zhou and Ip both turn in excellent performances (or as excellent as can be determined with dubbing), and their effortless mother-daughter dynamic provides the emotional backbone of the story.
Cap it off with some luminous camerawork by cinematographer Yu Lik-wai and creative production design by Man Lim-chung (because there isn’t much left of 1940s-era Hong Kong to draw from), and there’s a lot to recommend Our Time Will Come. It comes down to personal preference as to whether or not Hui has let audiences down by not delving deeper into the idea of defending Hong Kong’s intellectual freedom.
Opens July 6, Rated IIA; running time 130 minutes