Director Ann Hui Shows a Bleak Reality through a Photojournalist in ‘Boat People’ — the Final Movement of Her Vietnam Trilogy

TCM will feature films from 12 decades— representing 44 countries—totaling 100 classic and current titles, all created by women. Read more about this here! 

In 1982, Ann Hui directed the film Boat People (Tau Ban No Hoi)—the final leg of her trilogy of films that center around Vietnam. Starring George Lam, Season Ma, Cora Miao, and the young Andy Lau, the film is an emotional discovery of how people lived in postwar Vietnam. KIZJ: (4/5)

“Shiomi Akutagawa” (George Lam) is a Japanese journalist who goes back to visit Vietnam after its liberation to see what life is like under communist ruling. The officials are incredibly welcoming and bring him on a tour around a village in the New Economic Zone close to DaNang that is clean and filled with content people. A choir of healthy children performs “Last Night I Dreamed of Chairman” to Shiomi as he snaps pictures of them. He carries his camera around with him everywhere to ensure he never misses a shot. During a meal with some of the officials, he describes how different the place is compared to his previous visit, where he captured a photograph of a disabled young boy. Now, seeing how well the children are, he feels that everything is the way it should be. After one of his tours with an official guide, he is sitting in the car when he comes across a fire; he leaps out of the car to take photos of the incident. He’s attacked by the local police for his actions but quickly rescued by his guide. 

Shiomi quickly learns that with the officials and his guide monitoring his daily schedule, his movements are very limited. As a photojournalist, he is used to traveling alone and capturing real-life moments on the streets. After breaking free from the officials, he meets “Cam Nuong” (Season Ma), a young kid from a low-income family who runs about the city trying to earn income to help care for her siblings and sick mother. He also meets the village’s local bar owner and “Mistress” (Cora Miao), and a laborer/prisoner “To Minh” (Andy Lau). With their help, Shiomi gets to know the Vietnam that no one wants him to see. He unveils the truth behind the indoctrinated sunny image and realizes the appalling reality leaves its people with no choice but to escape.

Director Ann Hui is known for using cinema to tell stories about social issues. She grew up in Hong Kong with parents from mainland China and Japan, making social commentary about these countries a natural outcome for her art. Director Ann Hui’s Boat People swept the awards at Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA) and became a vital part of Hong Kong cinema’s New Wave at the start of the 1980s. The filmmaker is known for many of her works, including A Simple Life, which was also very popular at HKFA. Although there were moments in the film where the acting didn’t entirely convince me, the overall story was enticing enough that I couldn’t help but feel invested in its characters, particularly the Mistress. Boat People is one out of three films that Hui created about Vietnam. To make her characters more realistic, she used snippets of stories she heard when she interviewed people in the country, which is why this film is sometimes described as a mixture of documentary and fiction. The costume by Saan-Ngai Wong and the art direction by Tony Au are all great examples of how the various elements within a film can heighten its impact as a whole.

As always, Hui’s film is filled with empathy. By having the audience follow a central character who aims to capture people’s real, unstaged lives, we are pushed to question what is real and what is merely a facade. It’s difficult to ignore that the film was made with Hong Kong in mind—the filmmaker fears for the future of the city. There is a strong disparity between the city’s strong image on the global stage as Asia’s financial center versus the social issues and the realities of its peoples’ lives. Although it has been decades since the film’s release, it has not lost its humanist and emotional touch.

© Katusha Jin (11/06/2020) FF2 Media

Feature Photo: George Lam and Season Ma

Middle Photo: George Lam

Bottom Photo: George Lam and Cora Miao

Photo Credits: International Spectrafilm

Q: Does Boat People pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes, I remember “Cam Nuong” (Season Ma) bartering with a woman selling fish.

Katusha Jin

By Katusha Jin

As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.

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