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November 30, 2000

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Hong Kong director Ann Hui hits the festival circuit with her Ordinary Heroes

By Stuart Whitmore

THIS IS GETTING TO be a habit. When the organizers of this year's Berlin Film Festival disclosed who was in the running for the prestigious Golden Bear award, the line-up included a familiar name: Ann Hui On-wah. The Hong Kong director and the Berlinale are rapidly becoming something of an item. In 1995, Hui's Summer Snow, a lightly stepped study of Alzheimer's disease, scooped a Silver Bear. The following year Hui made a return trip to sit on the festival jury. This time she was back in competition, with her latest feature, Ordinary Heroes, getting its world premiere in the German capital.

The ever-modest Hui is at a loss to explain how she became such a festival favorite. It doesn't occur to her that the reason could be the quality of her work. Her best guess styles the Berlin committee as a secret society, dedicated to saving endangered filmmakers. "They have been very good to me," says the 51-year-old. "Around 1994 my career was at a very low ebb. I was sinking and almost disappeared. They seemed to pick up the first film of mine they could and push it into competition." That was Summer Snow, which won Josephine Siao Fong-fong the Silver Bear award for best actress.

Hui may be right that Berlin helped to rescue her career. Summer Snow went on to clean up at both the box office and Taipei's Golden Horse Awards. But Hui, who was coming off a long run of critical and commercial flops at the time, doubts that the film would have been given the same reception had it not first been acclaimed abroad.

Such recognition is vital for an independent filmmaker such as Hui. It not only helps sell the movie back home, but offers a shot at lucrative foreign sales. "We need money to make films," explains the director. "Things are very bad in Hong Kong right now. But if I can sell my movies abroad, I can make the money back and keep on filming. My future depends on that." These days a festival no-show equals an international no-sale - and a stalled career.

The irony is that Hui is at her best when making films that speak directly to her fellow Hong Kongers. Ordinary Heroes is a perfect example. A tale of social struggle in 1980s Hong Kong, the story revolves around the real-life fight between the colonial government and the territory's "boat people" - mainland fishermen and their families who lived on squalid houseboats in Hong Kong waters and were long refused permission to settle on dry land.

The movie opens with a young girl, Sow (Rachel Lee), breathlessly fleeing the corridors of a psychiatric clinic in a sweat-soaked hospital gown. Soon we learn that she is suffering from amnesia. Her damaged memory hides the story of a tragic love affair and, more important, of a decade of turbulence in Hong Kong. Flashback to 1979. Sow is from a family of boat people. Orphaned when a fire sweeps through her floating neighborhood, she finds a father figure in Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), an idealistic student committed to winning better conditions for the fishermen and their families. Sow meets Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) when she steals his wallet in a video arcade. He becomes drawn into her world. There Tung, the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, finds a steadying paternal influence in a Catholic priest, Father Kam (Anthony Wong), who lives among the boat people.

As the years pass, the four become bound together. Their common cause provides focus in their confused lives. Beneath it each is crippled by conflicting emotions. Tung is in love with Sow, but she only makes selfish, unconditional demands on her surrogate brother. Sow in turn has a crush on Yau and is distraught when he marries another. Yau himself struggles with a feeling of political impotence that grows as he moves closer to the establishment and climaxes in a complete loss of faith and self on June 4, 1989: the day of Beijing's Tiananmen Square killings. The closest we get to a vision of clarity is Father Kam - who directs the distraught to Mao's Little Red Book more readily than to the Bible. Interspersed throughout the film are snatches of street theater recounting the saga of real-life activist Ng Chung-yin. His story acts like a chorus, mirroring the travails of the characters as Ng travels, step by disillusioned step, from romantic Trotskyist revolutionary to editor of the Chinese-language edition of Playboy.

Hui directs the complex tale with a commendably clear head. She is a politicized filmmaker more than a political one, eschewing polemics in favor of stories that can do their own talking. "I wasn't involved in politics at all when I was younger," she acknowledges. She has made up for it since picking up the camera, first making TV documentaries and then features in the 1980s. Ordinary Heroes itself harks back to Boat People, Hui's breakthrough film of 17 years ago on Vietnamese refugees.

The China-born director often finds herself championing the oppressed. "It's a kind of social duty for me," she says. "Films need to be shot for these people. I'm middle class, but I find that lifestyle very, very boring and self-centered. That's why I started making documentaries. People didn't used to talk about politics at all in Hong Kong. It's about time we soberly accepted and examined our past."

And our present. The screenplay for Ordinary Heroes was inspired by activist priest Father Franco Mella. Mella now lives and works in China, but by a quirk of fate was back in Hong Kong even as Hui jetted to Berlin. Mella has been leading mainland families in their quest to be granted the right of abode in the SAR, one of the most burning issues in post-handover Hong Kong.

Berliners not up to speed with their Hong Kong history might well have left the movie theater baffled. But even when the film makes the trip home with Hui, there is a risk that mainstream Hong Kong audiences will be similarly non-plussed. The SAR's moviegoers are used to single-minded superheroes like Jackie Chan. Hui's variety are normal people riven by personal problems. Their heroism is in the way they meet life head on. Asked where the film fits in the current Hong Kong scene, Hui simply says: "It doesn't!" and laughs.

Nevertheless, she is hopeful of box-office success. While the screamagers that throng the multiplexes to catch the latest Cantopop-star vehicles are hardly likely to flock to see Ordinary Heroes, Hui hopes that students, former radicals and anyone nostalgic for the 1980s will take a lot away from her movie. "If a Hong Kong audience doesn't like this film, I will be very disappointed," she says. All will depend, as ever, on how well the film is packaged and sold. Being invited to compete with the best in Berlin will have helped. A prize would have been even better, but there was no statuette for Ordinary Heroes at this year's festival. Never mind. There's always next time.

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home



U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

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