Author Auteur: New Wave Film Icon Ann Hui Returns to Eileen Chang

Ann Hui is funny. 

On a sunny weekday in Jordan, director Ann Hui comes bouncing into her distributor Golden Scene’s offices decked out in her signature Converse sneakers and a sturdy, comfortable looking skirt. Her hair is close cropped as always, short shaggy bangs framing standard eyeglasses that somehow look artistic on her. She doesn’t look close to her 74 years, though she’s fond of making jokes about her maturity. Hui jokes a lot, actually, including with the photographer taking some photos. “You’re a very good director,” she announces. High praise. 

Earlier in the week, the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival (HKAFF) hosted a screening of Hui’s latest film, Love After Love, based on Eileen Chang’s short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier. It’s been a long time coming after premiering at the 77th Venice International Film Festival last year, where Hui was feted with an Honorary Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, much of it chronicled in Man Lim-chung’s 2020 documentary Keep Rolling, which got Hui’s stamp of approval. 

Ann Hui – Photos by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

“I did like the film. It’s reflective of a lot of the aspects of me that are positive. But expressing the negatives in a film like that is difficult,” she says. What are these negatives she’s referring to? “Oh, being ruminative and lazy. All kinds of general things that are human: procrastination, resentment, that kind of thing.” Hui then goes on to break down how “sloppy” she believes she can be, and how she’s too quick to settle on “good enough” rather than do one more shot. She claims she’s not fussy enough as a filmmaker sometimes. Ask her if she would like to go back to the drawing board and tinker with any of her films the way George Lucas tinkered with his Star Wars trilogy and the reply is instant: “Almost every one of them, man.”

Hui’s level of sloppiness is something more than a few filmmakers would hope to attain. If ever recognition for a career was earned it’s for Hui. In her 40 years in filmmaking, Hui has worked with Maggie Cheung, Chow Yun-fat, Leon Lai, Anita Mui, Simon Yam, Deanie Ip, Andy Lau, Jacky Cheung, Tang Wei, George Lam and Zhou Xun among scores of others. She or her films have won seven Hong Kong Film Awards, three Golden Horse Awards and the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award from the New York Asian Film Festival from 57 total accolades. 

Hui is one of the most prominent figures of the 1980s Hong Kong New Wave, though she remains under the radar beyond the city and the festival circuit. Her films have had an impact on both the filmmakers that have followed her and Hong Kong cinema in general, starting with her Vietnam Trilogy (the “From Vietnam” segment on the RTHK series Below the Lion Rock in 1978, The Story of Woo Viet in 1981 and 1982’s Boat People) and up to her recent explorations of working class resilience (The Way We Are, 2008), abuse and displacement (Night and Fog, 2009), and discrimination and alienation of LGBTQ women and single mothers (All About Love, 2010). In between social dramas Hui dabbled in genre material, from ghost stories (Visible Secret, 2001) to crime thrillers (Zodiac Killers, 1991). Along the way she’s made identity and dislocation topics worth discussing and imprinted her own literary, feminist mark on each of her films. 

Sandra Ma Sichun as Ge Weilong, a young woman who travels from Shanghai to Hong Kong – Photo courtesy Golden Scene

“I don’t self-consciously, declaratively shoot films to be feminist,” she says. “But it will come out that way anyway. If you’re honest about what you’re looking at and you’re a woman that shoots a movie it’s already feminist. It’s a woman’s point of view.” It’s a line of reasoning that brings to mind the lyrical tone her films are often bathed in. A student of comparative literature, Hui notes that for many years literature was “my only life experience” and was often her only experience of a subject when it came to research for a film. “It’s not deliberate, at least not for every film. Poetry quotes are obvious but what makes a film literary? Is it the narrative, is it the content or what you call depth? I don’t know because I’m not conscious of it. Maybe it’s not streetwise, or rough or down to earth, because I’m not that kind of person.” 

The most obvious manifestation of that literary, feminist touch is in her historical dramas such as The Golden Era (2014) and Our Time Will Come (2017), and her adaptations of Chang’s words, first in Love in a Fallen City (1984), then Eighteen Springs (1997) and now Love After Love. Each of those films is marked by a lush lyricism that immerses viewers in the time and space of the story, rather like a novel. Hui has been drawn to Chang’s prose for decades, partly for her flowing use of language—even if her heightened dialogue was challenging to work with—and also for her nonconforming spirit and astute observations, despite being perceived as a recluse who died alone. 

“When I read her newly published posthumous letters, she seemed active and enterprising to the very end,” says Hui. “I didn’t get a picture of a tragic recluse. She was fighting tooth and nail for every penny from her manager and her bank. She wasn’t giving up on life. That made me happy.”

Love After Love is not a Chang adaptation Hui chose; producer Liu Ren approached her with the project. “But I wasn’t forced to! I chose to [take it on]!” she clarifies with a laugh. It may be the starriest film of her career. Set in the late 1930s, the period atmosphere has been realised by a high-profile crew that includes emerging production designer Zhao Hai, Wong Kar-wai’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Japanese costume designer Emi Wada (Akira Kurosawa’s Ran and Hong Kong classic The Bride with White Hair)—who passed away on November 13—and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Revenant, The Last Emperor, Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence).

Like many of Hui’s films, the story revolves around a woman impacted by social forces beyond her control, but which nonetheless compel her life choices. Ma Sichun (Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate) plays Ge Weilong, a naive Shanghai student who moves in with her sophisticated, wealthy aunt, Madame Liang (Faye Yu, Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club and John Woo’s The Crossing), to finish school in pre-war Hong Kong. Madame Liang, however, lives behind a carefully constructed façade that relies on wealthy men to maintain it – and beautiful young women to attract those men. When Weilong gets involved with George Chiao (Eddie Peng of Hui’s Our Time Will Come and Dante Lam’s actioner Operation Mekong) the film takes a slight turn towards melodrama before ending on a suitably sour note.

Ann Hui – Photo by William Furniss for Zolima CityMag

At the HKAFF screening, Hui compared it with her earlier Chang adaptations, suggesting Love wouldn’t resonate the same way the earlier films did. “I didn’t mean it won’t resonate, I just think this one is more difficult to resonate with modern audiences,” she explains. “Eighteen Springs is a mournful and lyrical love story, and even though the lovers separate it leaves audiences with a bittersweet feeling. This one is soft and decadent but very tough. It says something audiences may not like to accept about themselves. You can’t transcend the sadness. It’s not even a tragedy.”

Love After Love is the most sumptuously produced of the three Chang adaptations, and the strongest technically – at least to Hui’s mind. It bears a resemblance to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (also based on a Chang book) in the way the woman at the centre of the story is a difficult character for audiences, as well as Hui and screenwriter Wang Anyi, to wrap their heads around. “These girls, especially Weilong, aren’t special,” says Hui. “The aunt is wily, powerful, beautiful. [Weilong] is quite bland but she’s subjected to a lot of emotional upheavals. It would be easy for the audience to think she deserves what she gets. Some of it she does, and to call her a total victim is even worse. It’s hard to win audience approbation with roles like these.” But Weilong is precisely the kind of woman Hui has spent 40 years dissecting, and her aim with Weilong was to ensure she wasn’t a vase: a woman who sat in the corner and looked pretty while the world moved around her. 

At this point in her career, Hui says she’d be able to accept it if she never got to make another feature, and would be more than content working on shorts and documentaries because of the freedom of choice they offer and the less physically taxing demands of their production. She’s already dabbled in both forms, with a memoir-style documentary about Hong Kong ahead of the 1997 handover (As Time Goes By), contributions to omnibus films Beautiful 2012 (“My Way”), and the still unreleased Septet (“Headmaster”). She is also currently in the editing stage of a documentary about two Hong Kong poets. 

Hui sees filmmaking generally as being in an unpropitious state; theatres are still reeling from Covid-19 restrictions, international releasing is dominated by Marvel, and censorship is on the rise everywhere. “It’s too late to go to Hollywood and adapt to a new system, and they don’t need more filmmakers anyway,” she says. “There are tons of young filmmakers coming up, so competition is stiffer. Not everyone wants to work with an old director like me, someone they can’t control as much.”

She is nonetheless interested in what might come of new streaming platforms. Without naming names, Hui tells a story of how she approached an alternative outlet as long as 20 years ago regarding limited series for speciality cable and online content – and was turned down. Those same outlets are singing a different tune now, and Hui is flirting with creating an anthology for a streaming platform. She’s not as quick to dismiss online platforms for their perceived lack of interest in Hong Kong content as some of her filmmaking peers are, especially regional operators like local streamer ViuTV. And with funding the single biggest hurdle to filmmakers, they may be the best way forward. 

“No one has to worry about box office demands and sinking resources into something that won’t pay off,” she says. “There’s also much more freedom. A friend is just finishing a 12-part series and he was telling me about how one segment can be 45 minutes and the next can be feature length,” she finishes. “It’s like a book you can pick off the shelf anytime. I think that’s tremendous. It’s flexible, and the time fits the programme, not the other way around.”

Trailer courtesy of Golden Scene

Love After Love opens in Hong Kong on November 25

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