Born: 23 May 1947, Anshan, China.
Directing Career: 1979 –
Movement: The Hong Kong New Wave.
Traits: One of the leading directors of the ‘Hong Kong New Wave’ of the late 70s and early 80s, mostly foreign-trained filmmakers who brought to the Hong Kong film industry new technical expertise, stylistic polish, and greater local specificity in themes and subject matter. In a versatile and prolific career, Hui has successfully moved between commercial genre films (everything from martial arts epics to psychological horror), political and/or historical dramas (e.g. her films about Vietnamese refugees such as Boat People or The Story of Woo Viet) and more low-key personal and humanistic films (e.g. A Simple Life and The Way We Are). Through this prolific versatility, her work consistently depicts an interest in the relationships between, and the internal lives of, vigorous female characters, often with the backdrop of change and transition within the city of Hong Kong playing a significant part.
Collaborators: Chow Yun-fat (actor), Andy Lau (actor), Nelson Yu Lik-wai (cinematographer), Wu Nien-jen (screenwriter), Kwong Chi-leung (editor), Man Lim-chung (production designer).
Related Directors: Tsui Hark, Allen Fong, Patrick Lam, Mabel Cheung, Clara Law.
Song of the Exile
Song of the Exile (1990) is Ann Hui’s most personal and autobiographical film, based on memories of her own crisis of cultural and national identity as a young woman, and her tense relationship with her Japanese-born mother. A mother she grew up misunderstanding, before realising they had both faced the same problems of cultural identity, home and belonging. This mutual realisation and reconciliation is the essential narrative arc, told through an intricate flashback structure that moves us (in both senses) across five different locations (London, Hong Kong, Macao, Japan and Mainland China) and four different periods (1945, the 1950s, 1963 and the film’s ‘present’ of 1973). The film’s point of view belongs to Ann Hui’s fictional counterpart, the daughter Hueyin (played by Maggie Cheung, already on her way to becoming an icon of Hong Kong cinema). But it is a perspective which we see shift across the course of the film, as she makes sense of her own life by better understanding that of her mother, Aiko (Taiwanese actress Lu Hsiao-fen, then best known for her roles in Taiwanese new wave films of the 1980s).
As the film opens, in London 1973, Hueyin cycles past Westminster Bridge with two friends in a mood of breezy freedom. After all, Hueyin, a British Hong Konger, has just graduated from the London Film & Television School, and is enjoying her summer break. But under the surface these deceptive opening moments reveal tension. Hueyin’s application for a job at the BBC has been turned down, while her (white British) friend has got in. When the trio go clubbing, Hueyin is ostracised, playing ‘fifth wheel’ while her girlfriends flirt with guys. Her friends, well-meaning as they might be, could never understand her loneliness and cultural alienation as a ‘colonial Other’ in Britain, nor imagine all the micro- and macro-aggressions that come with that status of outcast. Instead, they casually exoticise Hueyin — when she offers her a necklace, one of Hueyin’s friends describes it as “mysterious and Oriental”, excitedly taking this gift from an Asian to be a lucky charm.
Hueyin had fled Hong Kong, where an unhappy homelife is marred by a fractious relationship with her mother and her father’s death, but clearly Britain is no promised land. Hence when her sister phones from Hong Kong to invite her home for her wedding, Hueyin is torn. Initially reluctant to return to a home she had rejected, she lies to her sister about having a job in London and not being able to come. Later, she is at her typewriter copying out yet another resumé that’ll most likely lead to nothing, and she changes her mind. In two shots, Ann Hui succinctly puts us in the subjectivity of Hueyin.
The sad irony of typing ‘Nationality: British’, even though she continues to be treated like an outsider, and on a document that symbolises her inability to find a job (and hence prolong her stay), must be the final straw. As Hueyin crumples the unfinished resumé, we understand she will go back to Hong Kong after all. This return will mean a reunion with Aiko, her Japanese-born mother, with whom she gets on gratingly, at best. And yet, another spontaneous decision to travel will shape the film’s narrative, and change her life: after Hueyin’s newlywed sister emigrates to Canada with her husband, Aiko decides she would rather return to her ‘homeland’ of Japan rather than stay in Hong Kong, and Hueyin will choose to take the trip with her.
You can’t go home again
Song of the Exile thus hinges upon two ‘homecomings’, that of Hueyin from London to Hong Kong, and that of Aiko from Hong Kong to her birthplace in Japan.
For Hueyin, the question of home is complicated from the start. As a young girl she grew up in the apartment of her paternal grandparents in Macao, then still a Portuguese colony, where Aiko was increasingly alienated, seen as a Japanese foreigner in the culturally Chinese home of her in-laws. Hueyin as a young girl simply assumed Aiko to be a cold, aloof mother, and got on much better with her grandparents, so much so that when Aiko left Macao to go be with Hueyin’s father in Hong Kong, the young Hueyin elects to stay put. Some years later, when the grandparents decide to return to Mainland China (their own ‘homecoming’), a by now teenage Hueyin feels lost when forced to relocate to Hong Kong and be with parents she barely knows.
In the early flashbacks, Hueyin still does not yet have a sense of empathetic connection with her mother. Hueyin misconstrues everything her mother does, and the mother in turn has no idea how to reach out and get closer to her daughter. This only exacerbates Hueyin’s feeling of homesickness in Hong Kong — one of the first lines we hear her speak after her relocation is to describe her family apartment as a “strange home”. There’s something almost oxymoronic in that. Home should be somewhere familiar, and yet for Hueyin it is unfamiliar. It reminds us of the German word for uncanny or weird: unheimlich, literally un-homely. For Hueyin, Hong Kong and her family home are strange, weird, and ‘un-homely’.
But nor did London turn out any more ‘heimlich’, as we’ve already seen. It takes this second relocation for Hueyin to slowly grasp a better understanding of what Hong Kong represents for her. The flashbacks which show us her memories begin to be perceived differently. Take another moment from teenage Hueyin’s uncomfortable adaptation period in Hong Kong. She had never understood her mother, and spent her time railing against her father for being overly indulgent towards his wife. In Hueyin’s eyes, Aiko does nothing but stay home all day and, rather than carry out any motherly duties, indulges herself on mahjong games and Toshiro Mifune films. This is a small but significant detail in the film. Hueyin throws a tantrum at the idea of going to watch yet another Japanese movie for the family’s outing to the theatre, but what she could not then fully know is that Aiko’s aloofness and her desire to watch Japanese movies are the defence mechanisms of one who is homesick and feels ostracised in a foreign land. Only upon Hueyin’s remembering of this does the epiphany hit home for her.
Aiko too has a homeland crisis of her own. Despite not having set foot in Japan for almost 30 years, she still considers it home, in effect defining herself in counterpoint to Hong Kong, where she has never felt herself fit in, or to China which she associates with her bullying Chinese in-laws. She was a nurse during the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, and after Japan’s defeat stayed behind to accept the marriage proposal of a Chinese Kuomintang officer (Hueyin’s father). The Kuomintang being the sworn political rivals of the Chinese Communists, when Mao Zedong founded the PRC in 1949, Hueyin’s family had to flee the mainland, to colonial havens like Macao and Hong Kong.
And yet when she returns to Japan, after three decades away, her homecoming is not what she expected either. She no longer cares for her friends, the Japanese food which she had remembered as delicious is a disappointing letdown, and she superficially boasts of how life in Hong Kong is, showing signs that here too she feels like an exiled outsider who defines herself through difference from the people around her rather than similarity. The shared paradox of a displaced diasporic identity is what both daughter and mother face. Hueyin doesn’t feel a Hong Konger in Hong Kong, but is all too aware of her other-ness (and hence her Hong Kong-ness) in London, while Aiko feels Japanese in China, Macao or Hong Kong, but more Chinese (or Hong Kongese in Japan). Home is where the heart is, indeed.
Even the grandparents, albeit as secondary characters, have their own homecoming to add further texture to the tapestry of homesickness in Song of the Exile. Hueyin’s grandpa, a scholar of Classical Chinese literature, still holds onto the flame of an ideal (and idealised) version of the Mainland in his mind, so much so that the Portuguese colony of Macao can’t cut it as a makeshift home for long. It is his decision, in 1963, to return to the Mainland with his wife, despite the political danger he knows to expect. In fact, when we know our history, it will be even worse than he could have feared. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution will kick off and proponents of traditional (and hence ‘anti-revolutionary’) culture like him will be harshly persecuted by Mao’s zealous Red Guards. The mental idea of China as idealised homeland and cultural sanctuary which he tried doggedly to hold onto thus comes back to bite the grandfather with a vengeance.
These stories are typical of the mass diasporic movement in East Asia, a displacement of people that constitutes the very real legacy of the brutal wars (of resistance versus the Japanese and fratricidal between Communists and Kuomintang-Nationalist) fought in China during the 1940s. Besides being a British colony from the 1840s to 1997 (with three years of Japanese occupation during WW2), Hong Kong became home to millions of political refugees from the Mainland during the 1940s and 1950s. This Chinese diaspora, like all diasporas, came to be defined by its collective loss of a ‘homeland’ and unclear, fragile roots on their new ‘hostland’.
Ann Hui herself was among this influx, moving to the territory of Hong Kong with her family as a child. As Hong Kong’s population quickly more than doubled and the city transitioned beyond recognition, questions like “what is Hong Kong” had to be faced. What does it mean to be from Hong Kong? Are you Chinese? British, since your passport says so? Part of the Chinese diaspora? Or something that can be specifically ‘Hong Kongese’? Is one’s homeland wherever one was born, as Aiko insists? Is Mainland China, despite political shifts, still the spiritual motherland one should hope to return to, as Hueyin’s grandparents believe?
Whatever answers there may be to these complicated and paradoxical questions, finding them begins by understanding one’s position in relation to the shared experiences of other people. Ann Hui gradually makes Hueyin appreciate this, and it is part of the rich wisdom of her film. For all these characters have gone through similar stories and share the same realisation: their diasporic mental image of the ‘homeland’ fails to meet expectations when they set foot there again. To better understand why, we must examine the film’s other major theme: memory.
The past is a foreign country
Ann Hui, at least when operating in this mode of personal, humanist filmmaking, is never a particularly showy filmmaker stylistically. Nevertheless, she manages to convey visually the sense of Hueyin delving into her memory vaults. In Hueyin’s memory-flashbacks to her childhood in 1950s Macao, the apartment is visualised as dark and cramped, filmed in high-angle shots, as if describing how memories are our lived-in moments seen from different angles, or as if Hueyin herself is detached from these moments in the recesses of her memory which need illuminating.
Likewise in Japan, as Aiko returns to her hometown famous for its hot springs, Hui uses the setting in almost expressionistic manner. The hot steam rises up from the ground and envelopes the characters, to symbolise not only the foggy nature of rekindling with remembrance, but also the repressed subterranean emotions which Aiko had bottled up now finally surfacing. Faced with the reality of the actual homeland (as opposed to her idealised memory of it), Aiko has to confront issues she had suppressed: most of all the rejection from her own relatives, including her ex-soldier brother who isn’t over the Japanese defeat and bitterly hates her for having ‘betrayed’ Japan and marrying a Chinese, the old enemy.
The treatment of memory indicates that the film’s trips are not just physical but also mental journeys back in time. Modes of transport are a motif Hui peppers across the film: bicycles, trains, ferries, buses recur throughout, but the characters’ most significant journeys are internal. Just look at these two stills from two different flashbacks, one of Aiko (and her husband) in the 1950s and one of Hueyin in the 1960s, both on the ferry from Macao to Hong Kong, and each looking out to sea in opposite directions, as if their vantage point on the past is not (yet) aligned. Only in the final act, after all the epiphanies of the Japan trip, will we get a shot of the two of them together, looking once again out to see, this time side by side and in sync with each other. The film’s arc is thus to reach a point where these two disparate moments, from two different journeys in the past, can be quilted together.
To structure her own story, Ann Hui asked Wu Nien-jen, the great Taiwanese writer (and actor, director, producer among many other things) who had worked on so many Hou Hsiao-hsien films — including Hou’s very own autobiographical coming-of-age film A Time to Live, A Time to Die (1985), which Hui cites as her all-time favourite film. No accident then that she sought Hou’s close collaborator, trying to channel some of the lyrical humanism of the 1980s Taiwanese New Wave — there’s even some stylistic influence in the train sequence capturing the lush greenery of rural Japan, over a gentle new age soundtrack, through travelling shots that could have easily belonged in Hou’s Dust in the Wind (1986).
The latter was co-written by Wu Nien-jen, based on an incident in his own life, so when Hui sought him out she knew he had a track record in auto-biographical screenplays. It was Wu himself who suggested the creative flashback structure, grounding us within Hueyin’s perception: every flashback is triggered by her increasing empathy, be it through memory or through imagining what things must have been like for her mother, increasing her sense that all of her own memories have their parallel within her mother’s experience. With this comes the realisation that attempts to rekindle the past, to thaw our frozen memories and have them come alive unscathed, to hope to reconnect to something from hindsight which is no longer the same, are all doomed to failure.
It is not just distance that alters the idea of home, but time too. The role of memory in constructing our identity is another truth this film’s gentle wisdom captures so well. Aiko cannot find home in Japan again, at least not the same home she remembered, because for thirty years her memories and hence her identity have assimilated layers of Chinese and Hong Kong experiences. In other words, for the diaspora the idea of the lost homeland is inevitably influenced by the lived-in reality of the hostland. As the great Caribbean-British cultural scholar Stuart Hall himself put it, diasporic identities are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation. Same thing for memory: the beauty of the film is that it is an internal journey, it is about Hueyin recalibrating her own memories, understanding them better with time, from a new perspective afforded her by putting herself in her mother’s shoes.
Forging connections not merely between a reconciled daughter and mother, Ann Hui’s film can be seen as a bridge between generations, between cultures, between nation-states, between memory and the present, between the Hong Kong and Taiwanese new waves, and between the personal and the political. These stories, Ann Hui’s and that of her family, echo thousands, if not millions, of others. Even today as further generations have passed since the mass dispersion of Chinese migrants in the 1940s and 1950s, it remains impossible to understand the present fragmented identity of China and its diaspora without first coming to terms with these stories of loss, displacement and rupture.
Embedded in the very structure of the film are two bookends that remind us of this wider scale. Song of the Exile ends on a shot of a bridge, just as it started with one. We began with the colonial past for Hong Kong: Westminster Bridge in London. Now, the film closes with a bridge in Guangdong province, on the mainland, with one eye firmly on the future, from the viewpoint of 1990: the nervous countdown to handover in 1997, when Hong Kong would be returned to China. Another form of ‘homecoming’, this time for the whole of Hong Kong and with just as many uncertainties and questions as those of Hueyin and Aiko invoked.
In recent years, social media movements like MeToo and Black Lives Matter have rightly highlighted the importance of listening to the testimony and stories of others from a place of empathy, and within that context Ann Hui’s most autobiographical film, telling us her own story, still resonates even with 30 years distance. There is something inspiring about Hueyin’s gradual understanding of how her own story is situated among a tapestry of millions of interconnected experiences of exile and diaspora. And more than that, it is thanks to her trajectory from alienated individualism to shared belonging and active empathy that she can finally bridge the gaps between her conflicting identities and lay down roots for herself. Like Hueyin, we too can all learn from listening, empathising and making connections. (June 2020)