‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.
HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.
The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.
I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.
It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.
Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.
This film was playing at the Glasgow Film Festival where I saw two other recent Chinese films, Dearest (China-HK 2014) and Red Amnesia (China 2014). I saw The Golden Era earlier at Cornerhouse in Manchester for the annual Chinese New Year treat courtesy of the Chinese Film Forum. Golden Era is a biopic, a melodrama and a very personal film by Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the case study directors in The Global Film Book). The Hong Kong entry for Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, The Golden Era did not make the final selection but this is no surprise given its length, large cast of mainly ensemble players and its lead character who is an important Chinese writer from the 1930s but not widely known outside China itself.
I usually prefer to see films ‘cold’ but in this case I think it would have been useful to have read some of the background on the narrative’s subject, Xiao Hong. This might have made it easier to understand the inter-relationships of the central characters and their movements during the turbulence in China in the 1930s. Xiao Hong was born in Manchuria close to the border with Russia in 1911 and eventually found her way to Hong Kong where she died in 1942. She tells us this in a ‘to camera’ statement at the start of the film and this is a strategy Ann Hui deploys throughout the film as different characters in the story comment on their ‘take’ on the writer and what happened to her. This is both a narrative device to disrupt the conventions of the biopic and something of a necessity because there are so many gaps in the known history of the character. This means we get some contrasting versions of what might have happened and why. The device made me think of Actress/Centre Stage (HK 1992) Stanley Kwan’s audacious film about the 1930s Shanghai film star Ruan Lingyu in which Maggie Cheung plays the star and appears as herself.
The Golden Era is a complex story about a genuine rebel character. Originally named Zhang Naiying, Hong had an unhappy childhood and ran away from an arranged marriage only to find herself pregnant ‘out of wedlock’ and abandoned at 20 in a cheap hotel in Harbin. Her rescuers were from the local group of writers. She fell for one of them and the couple changed their names to Xiao. She became Hong, he became Jun. From her early beginnings as a writer Hong wrote about her feelings and about the social environment. In 1931 Japan occupied what a year later would become the puppet state of Manchukuo. Hong herself would later spend time in Tokyo where she coined the term ‘Golden Era’ to describe a special period in her own life – recognising that she had time to herself (Jun was not with her) to write and that this was what she prized most. (I found this to be a striking observation for a young woman in her twenties.) At other times she visited Shanghai and became part of semi-official Chinese literary culture. However, as the Japanese invasion of the rest of China began to take hold in 1937, she and her fellow writers began to move West, ahead of the Japanese and joining up with the Communist Party. Hong and Jun split – for several reasons. He wanted to fight, she just wanted to write. When she did eventually marry it was not for love.
It isn’t difficult to see what attracted Ann Hui to this project. She herself was born in Manchuria in 1947 and her mother was Japanese. Like Hong, she moved to Hong Kong (but as a child aged 5). For one of the most acclaimed female directors in Chinese film, Hong’s story is full of important examples of refusal to abide by the conventions that bound most Chinese women of the time – of family, of ‘romance’, of ideologies of ‘cultural work’. The role of Hong requires an actor of great presence and strength and this is a wonderful performance by Tang Wei, probably best known outside China for the lead female role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (China/US/Taiwan 2007). The remainder of the ensemble cast is very strong too, many are actors who seem familiar including Hao Lei as Ding Lin, another prominent female writer, but one who is a redoubtable CCP soldier.
The film appeared at major festivals including Venice (closing night film) and Toronto but it received a mixed reception. Variety called the film ‘stifling’ and ‘unilluminating’. I’m an Ann Hui fan but I confess that in the opening sequences, knowing that the film was 177 minutes, I did wonder where it was going to go and whether I’d be able to cope with so many characters. In truth I thought the second part of the film was preferable to the first. I think there are two reasons for this. One was that I began to feel more comfortable with the array of characters and secondly the film became more of a recognisable melodrama. I guess that around half the audience in Manchester were Mandarin speakers and I noticed that they laughed at one moment when I was responding to what seemed like classic melodrama. It may be that the subtitling didn’t carry a joke – or perhaps it was that the younger Chinese audience is less familiar with classic melodramas. I thought about the films of Xie Jin in particular, but was also reminded of my recent viewing of Spring In a Small Town (China 1948). In these films it is usually the woman at the centre of the story – and often it is relationships between women that really matter.
Thinking about melodrama also prompts considerations of the films problems – and potential solutions. The interior lives of writers are difficult to register on film. At the two extremes are sequences of someone writing in a room or visualisations of their ideas that might be quite spectacular. Xiao Hong’s biography does indeed comprise many scenes in rooms punctuated by dramatic events in a country mired in war (a lot of train trips, wagon rides and ferries). Melodrama at least offers us the pleasures of costume, colour, hair and make-up and this is a feature of The Golden Era. I enjoyed the cinematography of Wang Yu (Suzhou River, 24 City) and the art direction of Zhao Hai.
Reading the varied responses to the film I was struck by that of Derek Elley for Film Business Asia. He thinks that the film fails (he also refers to another recent version of the same story, Falling Flowers in 2012). Elley argues that Ann Hui is less comfortable with period films but he puts most of the blame on Tang Wei who he agues is completely miscast. I haven’t seen Ann Hui’s other period films so I can’t comment on that aspect. The Tang Wei argument is more troublesome. Elley clearly doesn’t rate her as an actress and argues she can’t hold the narrative together. I’m not sure she has to. The story is as much about the people around her and how they see her. Elley makes sharp comments. Here’s an extended quote:
Looking and acting way too modern throughout, Tang is unable even to come up with a consistent style of delivering her dialogue, wobbling between softer standard Mandarin and a hard, gutsy northern accent. She seems out of place from the start and doesn’t make Xiao Hong (for all her faults) somebody worth caring about across three hours of drama and tragedy. It’s a typically loose, unfocused performance by the 34-year-old actress that seeps out into the rest of the movie.
It’s always difficult watching a film and having to rely on subtitles and being unable to distinguish accents and dialects. But this is a common charge in many film cultures (I’m equally guilty of criticising UK and US actors for inappropriate accents). Perhaps that laughter quoted above was aimed at the delivery of the dialogue? As to the performance overall, Ann Hui is a vastly experienced and highly-celebrated director. I can’t really see her accepting the kind of performance Elley refers to. I acknowledge his comments and I agree with some of them up to a point but overall I enjoyed the film and Tang Wei’s performance. Unfortunately, like the other two films mentioned at the start of this review I don’t think that The Golden Era will be widely seen in UK cinemas. Distributors seem afraid of releasing Chinese films of any kind.
Here’s the international trailer with English subs:
And a Chinese trailer with English subs:
One of the most garlanded films from East Asia in 2011 has finally made it into UK distribution – and it immediately goes into my Top 10 of 2012 releases. A ‘simple tale’ this may be, but it is exquisitely made and packs a mighty punch both in the emotions it arouses and the subtle commentary it makes on contemporary Hong Kong society – and on the power of nostalgia. It’s a star-laden production from the leads to the cameo appearances and the creative talent behind the camera. Ann Hui is the doyenne of HK directors, Andy Lau is the superstar of Chinese cinema and Deanie Ip, a significant figure herself in the 1980s, has come out of retirement to win the acting prizes. The film looks terrific thanks to Yu Lik-wai (best known for his work with Jia Zhangke) and the minimal piano score by Law Wing-fai is perfect.
A Simple Life is in some ways a nostalgic film – or at least a film about how memories inform the last few months of a powerful relationship in a middle-class Hong Kong family. I recommend the film’s quite beautiful website with its explanation of the role of the amah in Hong Kong households. I’ve deliberately chosen the nostalgic poster above to illustrate this.
I take the amah to be a colonial legacy (similar to the ayah in India). The amah was a maid cum nanny, often recruited as a young teenager, who would pledge herself to a family in which she would gradually assume charge of the children as and when they were born. She wore a uniform of black pants and a white blouse. Under British colonialism, the amah would serve in both the coloniser’s homes and those of the local middle-classes. The bond between amah and child would be very strong and would carry through to adulthood. A Simple Life is based on the real world experience of producer Roger Lee. In Susan Chan’s script Deanie Ip plays Ah Tao, the amah of Roger (Andy Lau), the last remaining Hong-Kong based member of a family in which his mother and siblings (now with children and later in the narrative, even grandchildren of their own) have migrated to California. Ah Tao has been ‘in post’ since she was a young teenager – over 60 years. Roger is an accountant in the film industry, often away on business. One day, on his return from Beijing, he discovers that Ah Tao, now his housekeeper, has had a stroke. He decides to acquiesce to her wish to retire and live in a care home and when she leaves hospital, he takes her to one that he has found, owned by an old and rather disreputable friend (played by the Hong Kong actor-director Anthony Wong).
Roger finds himself maintaining his close relationship, visiting Ah Tao and taking her out. Her decline is gradual but inexorable but in the process she develops relationships with several of the other residents in the home. The home itself isn’t too bad and it is in the local area that she knows and wants to remain in. Ann Hui chose the district herself as a location for the shoot. It is quieter than the more bustling streets well-known to film lovers. Hui was one of the pioneers of a form of social film with a realist aesthetic during the period of the Hong Kong New Wave in the early 1980s and A Simple Life feels very ‘located’. The film offers us a commentary on the realities of social welfare in Hong Kong and on the new system of ‘service’. Roger remains impassive when the charges for ‘escorts’ (the carers who take the residents out for hospital trips etc.) clearly delineate the Filipinos, Mainlanders and ‘Foreigners’ etc. (I confess that I didn’t grasp all the details but the sociology is interesting). This is confirmed when we see the interviews for a new ‘maid’ to help out in Roger’s flat – the candidates are clearly not prepared to consider the kind of work the amah did. Status is important in Hong Kong and some of the funniest moments come when Roger, because of his casual clothes, is mistaken first as an air-conditioning maintenance man and then as a taxi-driver. In the home, Roger describes himself as Ah Tao’s godson. There is a whole discourse about service and social class bubbling beneath the surface of the exchanges in the home. The older residents probably recognise the real relationship but the younger staff and visitors take it at face value.
The irony is that I’ve read that Andy Lau really is Deanie Ip’s godson (although she is only 14 years his senior). This and other relationships on the set infuse the film. Many of the actors and crew have worked together before dozens of times going back to Ann Hui’s earliest work. The directors Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung play versions of themselves. In an interview, Hui points out that most of the female leads in the film have won a Best Actress award. The film seems as much about validating and celebrating the history of Hong Kong cinema as it is about the amah system.
In the end, however, this is a family melodrama and when the whole family celebrate the first birthday of Roger’s great-nephew (a child who is now American-Chinese-Korean), I was forcibly reminded of scenes in Edward Yang’s Yi-Yi (A One and a Two, Taiwan 2000) and the stories of extended families coming together. A Simple Life uses both the Chinese New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) as foci for the presence/absence of family and the importance of social interaction. Although the film is, I think, technically a melodrama, it is marked by the absence rather than the ‘excess’ of expressionism in music or mise en scène. Everything seems restrained and low-key – meticulous rather than colourless though. If there is excess it is in the detailed focus on rituals like cooking and eating. The emotional attachment between Roger and Ah Tao is expressed through the food they make for each other – and how they talk about it. Chinese culture surely revolves around the pot! When we discussed the film after the screening I think one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the way in which Roger handled the inevitable death of his amah. How he behaved seemed to demonstrate a real difference between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese attitudes towards a ‘death in the family’. His actions seem far less sentimental than actions in a similar Western film – but they don’t detract from what we know is his deep emotional attachment to his amah. On the other hand, Deanie Ip says that she thinks Roger could have done more for his ‘Tao Jie’ and she feels it was a very difficult role for Andy Lau. I must see the whole film again, but especially the last third. I realise that there are large chunks of back story that are not explored – unless I missed a cue. Has Roger ever had a wife or a lover? How important was the heart surgery he had some time earlier? In many ways Roger seems like as much of an anachronism as Ah Tao in his flat with few of the accoutrements of modern living.
I’ve seen reviews of this film in the Western press which refer to its long running time (118 mins) and dismiss it as a ‘crowdpleaser’ for older audiences – i.e. not the kind of film to interest ‘real’ cinephiles. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a wonderful film that will reward attentive audiences.
Here’s a trailer (no English subs, but they aren’t really necessary):
and one with subs:
Interesting blog from Singapore remembering the amah in that culture.