Throughout her long career, Ann Hui has become adept at making subtle political points through addressing the struggles of the recent past. Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語) was released in 1999, just two years after the handover which signalled the end of British colonial rule. The Chinese title of the film is taken from a Teresa Teng song heard on a car radio and means “thousands of words, tens of thousands of languages” – a sentiment which could apply to the work of the activists as they work tirelessly to little effect, but the English title perhaps hints more closely at the film’s essential purpose as a tribute and pean to these ordinary people who dared to stand up to authority to fight for what they thought was right.
After a brief prologue from the street performer (Mok Chiu-yu) – inspired by the real life figure Ng Chun Yin, who will become the Brechtian narrator of the ongoing drama, Hui cuts to a title card reading “to forget”, only to open with the words “I remember”. The heroine has, however, forgotten her former life for reasons of which we aren’t yet sure. Sow (Loletta Lee) is a young woman and former activist being cared for by her friend, Tung (Lee Kang-sheng) who has been nursing a longterm crush on her ever since she pickpocketed him when he was in high school. Sow, however, had been involved with an activist, Yau (Tse Kwan-ho), who later married someone else, but remains committed to the cause, as hopeless as it might seem.
The cause is that of the Yau Ma Tei boat people. A historic community of former fisherman, the Yau Ma Tei boat people live off the shore of Hong Kong in what was constructed as a typhoon shelter after a fierce storm destroyed almost an entire fleet in 1915. During the 1950s, the community moved away from fishing and became a a kind of tourist spot and centre for petty crime. With their own distinctive accents, clothing, and isolated way of life the boat people were not always welcome on land but also faced an additional problem in that many of their wives were refugees from the mainland and technically illegal migrants forbidden from setting foot on Hong Kong proper. Though the government instituted an amnesty for the children of boat people, it took advantage of the women who came forward to get official birth certificates, deporting them back to mainland China and separating them from their families.
The boat people find few friends, but an Italian Catholic priest and, incongruously enough, committed Maoist, Father Kam (Anthony Wong) becomes a staunch defender, living with the boat people and providing education for the children as well as ministering to his flock. Yau and Kam work together to advance the cause of the boat people while Sow assists Yau and Tung follows Sow whilst also becoming close to Kam and influenced by his peculiar ideology. Kam, often to be found strumming his guitar and singing the Internationale, becomes a figurehead for the movement, even committing to a hunger strike in an attempt to get the authorities’ attention.
Structuring her tale in a non-linear fashion, Hui weaves the complex narrative of political descent in ‘70s Hong Kong, splitting her focus between the single issue activism of Yau and Kam and the wider leftist movement as recounted in the street theatre of Ng Chun Yin. Ng, a longterm leftist activist, was the founder of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Marxist League who later went to China to deliver a true Marxist, democratic revolution but ended up betraying his cause and being kicked out of his own movement. Such obviously left-wing agitation was, perhaps, difficult in the early 70s when news of the cultural revolution had discredited Chinese communism, especially as many residents of Hong Kong had arrived as refugees from the oppressive regime, but there are those who continue to believe in and fight for the values that they believe should be present North of the border.
Sadly these hopes are crushed by the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 after which it was impossible to argue for the moral superiority of the Chinese state over the colonial government. The bursting of a political bubble runs in parallel with the sad love story of Sow and Tung who find themselves at odds with each other, never quite in the same temporal space. Hui signals the closing coda with another title card, this time reading “to not forget”, as Sow and Tung are forced to acknowledge their painful pasts as they look forward to an uncertain future. Forgetting and not forgetting become the central themes as the boat people plead for recognition, while there seems to be an active choice in play to decide to forget these “ordinary heroes” and the various sacrifices they made in the name of social justice as Hong Kong begins to look forward to its own uncertain future as one master is swapped for another and the silent majority sit idly by, opting for the consumerist revolution over the human one. Ng, in his opening statement, talks about heroes with unfulfilled missions. Tung and Sow find themselves at a new dawn with their illusions shattered, filled with thousands of words and nothing at all to say.
Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017
Original trailer (Cantonese, no subtitles)
Teresa Teng’s Thousands of Words