Walking onstage to receive the Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice International Film Festival in September, the director Ann Hui On-wah captured the world’s attention with her disarmingly self-deprecating manner. Dressed in her signature, minimalist uniform of a black blazer over a white poplin shirt (Prada on this occasion), round glasses, plain black trainers and a single, sparkling statement earring dangling from her left lobe, she spoke not much of herself, but rather, her home.
“Thanking you alone does not adequately express my feelings,” Hui said. “You do not know what encouragement you are giving to the people of Hong Kong, too.”
In many ways, it was a moment that perfectly illustrated the essence of Hui, whose work, above all, reflects a lifelong appreciation for the city in which she was raised and has lived most of her life, and a keen eye for observing all of its nuances. Her camera has documented some of the most powerful and candid stories about Hong Kong’s most overlooked people. Hui said of the city: “It has given me an education and a scholarship to study film in London. It has given me my life experiences and chances to work and find fulfillment.
“I treasure even my sufferings there and all those crazy, cool people,” she added, before making a vow from the stage to support young filmmakers pursuing their dreams today.
Despite Hui’s success, the much sought-after director normally shies away from the glitz and glamour associated with her trade, as well as the paparazzi and journalists. In a rare interview following her return to Hong Kong, one that she accepted only after several rounds of invitations that started in July, Hui was at first reserved. It wasn’t until she recalled that moment in Venice that a wide smile suddenly broke across her face.
“I’m very happy,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.” After Venice, Hui will release Love After Love, her third film adaptation of and fourth work based on Shanghai writer Eileen Chang’s first romance short story Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier, an incisive depiction of the chaotic, East-meets-West landscape of Hong Kong shortly before the Second World War. Love After Love was screened out of competition in Venice and is expected to be released in Hong Kong and China next year. This December, the Hong Kong film distribution company Golden Scene will release Keep Rolling, a documentary by local visual arts director Man Lim-chung, which celebrates Hui’s life and decades-long career. Featuring behind-the-scenes footage of Hui at work and interviews with her and people around her, it will be the first retrospective to shed light on the director’s personal life and the inspiration behind her work, a side of Hui that she rarely reveals.
“I just want to make films,” Hui says. “I don’t think my story deserves that much drama. It’s almost embarrassing.” When the subject of filmmaking is raised, though, she softens, to some degree relishing the significance of finally being recognised for her own achievement rather than being overshadowed by her male contemporaries. “In the filmmaking industry, there are more male than female directors. Winning this award as a woman offers more coverage and noise for female directors, and in turn there will be more job opportunities and recognition for us,” she says. “But gosh, I hope there won’t be too much publicity about me. It’ll be difficult to focus on my work.”
Arriving at the photoshoot at Wan Chai’s Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts a few days later, Hui comes across as slightly elusive as she greets Tatler’s editorial team with quick hellos and nice-to-meet-yous before dashing over to sit for a portrait. But her films tell a different story, as Hui’s dauntless character can be seen throughout her 42-year career directing and producing films and television series that cast light on some of Hong Kong’s most pronounced social problems. She has embraced taboo subjects, including gender and age, and focused her lens on refugees, housewives and domestic helpers. Announcing Hui’s recent award, Venice International Film Festival director Alberto Barbera lauded her ability to weave important social themes into individual stories with a degree of sensitivity and sophistication that is rare in filmmaking. “Not only has she captured the specific aspects of the city and the imagination of Hong Kong, she has also transposed and translated them into a universal perspective,” Barbera said.
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