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Hong Kong rhapsody

Ann Hui at the HFA
By A.S. HAMRAH  |  March 14, 2007

ZODIAC KILLERS: Doomed love longing for Hong Kong.

Ann Hui came to the Hong Kong film industry after working in television, where she made both episodic dramas and documentaries. She is something of a rarity among her generation of Hong Kong directors, which includes John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Wong Kar-wai. Although she sometimes work in the same genres they do, her films are contemplative where theirs are overwrought, nutty, or arty. Her films, of which the Harvard Film Archive is showing five (the newest, THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT, March 16, 7:30 pm, was unavailable for preview), reflect her training under the great 1960s director King Hu but are also the work of a woman who wrote her master’s thesis on the French avant-garde novelist and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet.

Hui gained international recognition for BOAT PEOPLE (1982; March 19 + 21, 9 pm), an exposé of the plight of Vietnamese refugees fleeing to Hong Kong. It pleased neither the mainland government nor the Taiwanese; she was accused of being both anti- and pro-Communist when it came out. Befitting a film from Hong Kong, it’s trapped between two competing versions of China, like the boat people themselves, and it sets up a recurrent theme in Hui’s films, the commitment to getting to Hong Kong and the desire to stay there no matter what.

This is apparent in her remarkably faithful adaptation of Eileen Chang’s famous novella LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY (1984; March 17, 9 pm + March 18, 7 pm). Caught between the rigid demands of her tradition-bound family in 1941 Shanghai and her desire as a divorced woman for an independent life, Liu-su (Cora Miao) moves to Hong Kong with an unreliable bon vivant, Mr. Fan (Chow Yun-fat). Like Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, the withdrawn Liu-su is wary of her man, who’s played Cary Grant–ishly by Chow, with his enviable hair and tailored suits. Just as she’s settling into unmarried domesticity, World War II begins. This unconventional couple are rewarded with real love as their city crumbles around them, and Liu-su sees that it’s better to be her own person surrounded by danger than to be a prisoner of a safety.

Hui’s characters long for Hong Kong in the Japan-set genre exercise ZODIAC KILLERS (1991; March 19, 7 pm). Two Chinese students (Andy Lau and Cherie Chung) living in Tokyo struggle to make ends meet in a world of neon sex clubs and yakuza violence. Only gradually do they realize their love for each other. But that love is doomed in this crime film, which weds the pop æsthetic of 1980s Hollywood (Lau’s character is a Stallone fan) to Hui’s love of tracking shots that investigate rooms and urban spaces. The film’s bitter ending, set at night in a dump where a porn movie is shooting, wraps things up in the best tradition of its tawdry genre without sacrificing the innate seriousness that makes Hui so special.

JULY RHAPSODY (2002; March 17, 7 pm + March 18, 9 pm) brings together all of Hui’s thematic and stylistic concerns, and it reveals her as a filmmaker of profound maturity. The Lolita story concerns a middle-aged high-school teacher (Jacky Cheung) drawn into an affair with a precocious student (Karena Lam). This quiet, introspective film refuses to indulge in guilt or shame, and it doesn’t cater to youth like American Beauty. It also offers Anita Mui’s final performance, as Cheung’s wife. Mui, a pop singer called the Madonna of China, had one of the great faces of her era’s cinema. As she watches an ex-lover dying in a hospital in July Rhapsody’s parallel plot, the thought of her too-early death, from cancer at 40, adds depth to this poignant, unsparing film.

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