Ordinary Heroes (千言萬語, Ann Hui, 1999)

ordinary heroes posterThroughout 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

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)