In recent years a festival darling, Ann Hui picked up the Golden Lion lifetime achievement award at the 77th Venice Film Festival yet there have been plenty of ups and downs in her 40-year career as Man Lim-Chung’s candid documentary Keep Rolling (好好拍電影) makes plain. Making his feature directorial debut, Man has been a frequent Hui collaborator as production designer and art director since July Rhapsody in 2002 and follows Hui from the production of 2017’s Our Time Will Come right up to her Golden Lion acceptance speech featuring both behind the scenes footage of Hui directing and direct to camera interviews from herself and other Sinophone directors including Stanley Kwan, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Jia Zhangke, Fruit Chan, Tsui Hark, and Hou Hsiao-Hsien. 

What quickly becomes clear is Hui’s ready willingness to face herself. She makes no secret of her on-set frustrations, Man cutting to footage of her irritated with an assistant director while another director recalls an incident from earlier in her career in which she lost her temper with her creative team only to turn up the next morning with tea and pineapple buns by way of an apology. By contrast, she is also described as unusually flexible in her working practices, willing to listen to the opinions of others and change her mind if convinced rather than stubbornly insisting on perfection or getting the image first in her head. Though she is often direct and forthright, making it plain to a PR that she won’t go on stage just to say a few meaningless words while reminding another that she’s not as young as she was and the schedule of in-person appearances is becoming unmanageable, she is also cheerful and energetic always laughing and joking unconcerned with her image and willing to expose an unvarnished vision of herself such as her agonising over a dress to wear to an awards ceremony only to turn up in her regular clothes because she didn’t have time to change after spending all day deliberating with the jury, much to the annoyance of old friend Sylvia Chang who had dressed up for the occasion. 

This is perhaps why she’s been able to weather the storm, philosophically laughing off the low points of her career in which she struggled to make ends meet as having accorded her additional life experience and added to her understanding of the lives of others. “You should treat each film as if it’s your last”, Stanley Kwan remembers her advising him, not for any morbid reason that tomorrow you may be gone but because you may never get the opportunity again should funding dry up which is a definite possibility in ever pragmatic Hong Kong. After recovering from a slump with Summer Snow, she found herself in another after the consecutive box office failures of The Stunt Woman and Eighteen Springs, funding Ordinary Heroes with investments from friends but seeing that too flop leaving her with no offers at all.

Yet as Jia Zhangke points out, an artist cannot care too much about box office and Hui herself comments on her determination to take on stories that matter to her and more recently to contemporary Hong Kong though she also admits that the growing importance of the Mainland market may be disrupting that of the local industry. Her protagonists are loners and outsiders often standing at a crossroads of history, a position pregnant with symbolism reflecting according to some the spirit of Hong Kong always anxious in search of settlement and security. Yet, they also perhaps reflect a sense of herself as a perpetual exile, born in Northern China to a Chinese father and a mother she discovered only at 16 to have been Japanese, thereby gaining new understanding which helped repair their sometimes fractious relationship as dramatised in 1990’s Song of the Exile. Now in her 70s and still working, Hui also cares for her now elderly mother reluctant to pursue the idea of placing her in residential care unwilling to admit the idea of “abandoning” someone while perhaps also reflecting on her experiences filming A Simple Life, inspired by the life of her friend and producer Roger Lee. A vibrant yet uncompromising look at the life and career of a legendary artist who helped to kick start the Hong Kong New Wave and went on to conquer European festivals, Man’s elegantly put together doc ends with the words “Long live cinema” a fitting tribute to woman who has dedicated her life to its continuing evolution.

Keep Rolling opened the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival. Viewers in the US will also have the opportunity to stream the film March 17 – 21 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema Season 12.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

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