Ann Hui in the Spotlight: A Rare Documentary About a Hong Kong Filmmaker and Hong Kong itself

Even though he is sitting in film distributor Golden Scene’s offices in Jordan, first time feature director Man Lim-chung looks like he would be more comfortable in an atelier – someplace with paint spatters on every surface and fabric samples piled in corners. The fifty-something filmmaker is slight and lean, relaxing back against his chair like a rock star. He seems cautious at first, but once he gets to talking about Ann Hui—the renowned auteur who is the subject of his feature documentary, Keep Rolling—he loosens up.  

“I watched the Johnnie To documentary from a couple of years back,” he says, referring to Ferris Lin’s 2013 Boundless. “I saw it on Netflix while shooting in China and just sent her [Ann Hui] a text one night asking if she’d care to be the subject of a doc.” That was the genesis of Keep Rolling, which after Boundless is only the second documentary to focus on a prominent Hong Kong filmmaker.

Ann Hui preparing to accept one her many awards in Keep Rolling – Photo courtesy Golden Scene and Man Lim-chung

It is a mystifying situation given how many great moviemakers have come from Hong Kong – and it isn’t one shared by other parts of Greater China. Man points to films about Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee (Let the Wind Carry Me by Hsiu-Chiung Chiang and Pun-Leung Kwan) and Chinese filmmakers (Walter Salles’ 2014 doc, Jia Zhangke: A Guy from Fenyang) to buoy his argument, and wonders how Hong Kong’s film industry, which has had such an undue influence on filmmaking worldwide—look no further than Quentin Tarantino’s entire oeuvre, the Wachowski’s The Matrix, Blade Runner, South Korea’s mid-2000s neo-noir boom, and any action film with John Woo-style “bullet ballet” among others—could garner so few cinematic examinations of its most prominent players.

Long before that, however, Man was a movie buff teen with ambitions to work in the movies – anywhere in the movies. “At first I wanted to be a director, but I didn’t really understand how many jobs there were in the industry. Really, all I knew was that I wanted to work in film,” he recalls with a laugh. He took the time to explore the business and the process of filmmaking while studying graphic design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University through a film studies class. His lecturer: Ann Hui. 

“I gave her my contact details at the time and asked her to give me a call if she needed my help. Obviously, she didn’t call,” says Man. Not one to give up so easily, he also had an encounter with veteran screenwriter and critic Shu Kei (Tracey) while still at school, and passed his contact details to him too. “He called back after I graduated,” he chuckles. 

Man went to work for Shu in distribution, after which he introduced him to director-artist Tony Au—who art-directed Hui’s Boat People and The Story of Woo Viet—which led to his first production gig in 1993, serving as image director’s assistant on Kevin Chu’s Flying Dagger. Man continued working with Au and later design giant William Chang, best known as director Wong Kar-wai’s go-to art director and production and costume designer. The experience set Man up for a career in production design and art direction with Tsui Hark, Stanley Kwan, Sylvia Chang, Johnnie To and Pang Ho-cheung, among others. He finally got his chance to work with Hui in 2002. 

As Man sees it, Hui is a crucial yet overlooked contributor to Hong Kong’s New Wave of the early 1980s. That was the short period in which an ascendant generation of directors—frequently educated overseas—including Patrick Tam, Mabel Cheung, Yim Ho and Ann Hui grafted social issues onto new technical and narrative aesthetics in local cinema. After working with Hui on at least four films—July Rhapsody (2002), A Simple Life (2011), Golden Age (2014) and Our Time Will Come (2017)—Man and Hui became “very good friends,” he says. He came to admire the directness and honesty she demonstrated on set, complemented by an ability to make everyone comfortable and part of the process. Like any artist, she can get fired up creatively and let her frustrations loose – but Man says she never let them linger in the workplace.

As a portrait of an artist, Keep Rolling has more than its share of enlightening moments. Man avoids hagiography, lets Hui speak and act for herself and allows the audience to draw its own conclusions. Perhaps most curiously, the film doubles as something of a biopic of Hong Kong. Man’s aim was to spend more time on Hui’s life and how she created her movies than on the movies themselves, but Keep Rolling accidentally became about her art as well. “When you talk about the growth of Ann you talk about the growth of the Hong Kong film industry,” says Man. “When you talk about the themes in Ann’s work, we’re also talking about the changes in Hong Kong during those years. So the story came from that.”

Man and his editors culled through hundreds of hours of location footage and interviews—including with industry heavyweights such as Fruit Chan, Andy Lau and Stanley Kwan—to locate the most illuminating moments that cleaved closely the cinematic mantra of “show, don’t tell,” ultimately creating a two-tiered film about an artist and the space in which she works. 

Ann Hui in Hong Kong harbour – Photo courtesy Golden Scene and Man Lim-chung

The doc begins traditionally, with archival material that offers up glimpses of the school-aged Hui in the 1960s and 1970s, as she embraces her lifelong affinity with the written word – from Shakespeare to wartime Chinese novelist Eileen Chang. Hui reflects on the discovery in her mid-teens that her mother was actually Japanese as a milestone that would go on to have a major impact on her. As much as Chan and Lau’s opinions offer professional insights, it’s the moments with Hui’s sister that draw the lines from Hui’s family history to her education and to her art. The single most prominent theme in Hui’s body of work is the exploration of identity, usually poetic ones, and Man’s construction makes that link clear. But Keep Rolling also draws parallels between Hui’s personal life and career with Hong Kong society and the film industry.

Like many of her New Wave compatriots, Hui began her career with a shoot-from-the-hip philosophy, willing to throw caution to the wind and to give anything a try. Her 1980 feature The Spooky Bunch took a satirical spin on typically reverent Cantonese opera films, and The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People (1982) were among the earliest New Wave entries to truly challenge Hong Kong on its refugee policy.

As she matured and learnt more about herself, her family, and what she wanted to say in her art, Hui’s path mirrors that of the film industry as it entered the 1990s and underwent structural shifts due to political and financial retooling, forcing it to reassess what it wanted to say. For Hui, the decade kicked off with Song of the Exile, about a Japanese woman and her Chinese daughter as they try to reconcile fraught identities in post-war China – a pertinent story as Hong Kong was starting to reassess its own identity in the spectre of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule.

In the 2000s, Hui turned her camera on the city’s increasingly transient nature as it seemed to fracture into clusters of “us” and “them.” In A Simple Life (2011), an elderly amah watches the family she has served for generations evaporate. It echoed Hui’s experience in the industry she had worked in for 20 years, which was beginning to reach beyond its borders for content, exposure, and funding. In the documentary, Hui speaks frankly about her funding struggles in this era.

Ann Hui with her mother in Man Lim-chung’s documentary – Photo courtesy Golden Scene and Man Lim-chung

Man allows his camera to follow Hui around during her regular walkabouts, where she gets on the MTR and walks the streets where Hongkongers like her actually live and work, and in doing so unveils the recipe of up-close authenticity, visual poetry, and personal and professional life that make an Ann Hui film. “I’m very lucky that my subject was willing to put her life into her work,” he says.

 So what is it Man hopes audiences will take away from Keep Rolling when it opens this month, after screening at Golden Horse in Taipei? An appreciation of Hui’s artistic perseverance would be a start. “My daughter is 18. She didn’t know much about Wong Kar-wai, never mind Ann,” laments Man. “There’s not enough knowledge of history among younger generations, so I hope I can address that.”

Keep Rolling is scheduled to open in December, depending on Covid-19 restrictions.

 

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