Q&A: Ann Hui

HK's film's senior stateswoman reflects on her career

HONG KONG -- Director Ann Hui is a rare breed: a household name in her native Hong Kong, a multiple award-winning auteur that attracts the biggest names in the business, including Chow Yun-fat, Maggie Cheung, Andy Lau, Josephine Siao, to name a few to play challenging roles, and be a prominent elder states(wo)man in the industry, while average Joes in the streets see her as one of their own. 

One of the star directors to have emerged from the “Hong Kong New Wave” in the late 1970s, Hui’s career spans over three decades, cementing her position as a pillar of Hong Kong cinema with her perseverance and warmth, and the social relevance, humanist concern, and political and historical reflections in her work.

Open, affable, and modest almost to a fault in person, Hui radiates a sense of joie de vivre while she talks to The Hollywood Reporter’s Karen Chu about exposing herself, her single-minded dedication to filmmaking, being a (female) director, and “All About Love,” her new light comedy on lesbianism and single mothers, screened as a gala presentation at PIFF 2010, her fifth appearance in Pusan.

Why did you choose to explore lesbianism and single motherhood in “All About Love?”

ANN HUI: I’ve wanted to address these issues for quite a while – I’ve never done a film on these subjects, so I’ve always wanted to try. At the same time, lesbianism is quite rarely seen in Hong Kong films. To me, it’s a valid subject, and I wanted to learn more about what lesbians and single mothers have to go through in our society.

We finished the script four years ago, and had discussed with prospective investors, but didn’t
reach a deal before. The same thing happened with another project of mine about prostitutes [in one of Hong Kong’s red light districts]. Investors had reservations because they couldn’t turn it into a Hong Kong-China co-production. The project would have difficulties getting through the Chinese censors. We wouldn’t have gotten the budget we needed if it’s not a co-production. So I’m very grateful to [the backer of Hui’s last three films] Wong Jing, even though he wanted [“All About Love”] to have commercial appeal, he was willing and was determined to take a gamble. The film won’t get into the Chinese or the Malaysian market; its potential in the European market remains unknown.  So that left us with Taiwan, Singapore – the staples. 

What’s your view on the recent effort by Hong Kong filmmakers to revive the traditional market for Hong Kong films in Southeast Asia as an alternative to the Chinese market?

HUI: I think the attempt might be successful, if we manage to find suitable subjects that appeal to those markets. The problem is, with places like Thailand, Malaysia, or Korea especially, they have their own local film industry. So it’s difficult to make them accept films with a strong dose of local Hong Kong culture. They were more open to Hong Kong films in the past with our kung-fu film output, but we don't make those purely locally anymore because they’re expensive. If we want to make them interested in something very local, it has to be of outstanding quality or the subject is relevant. But the catch with relevance is, we won’t know unless we’ve tested it. We’d only know if we’ve made the film and showed it there.

Are you optimistic about the local Hong Kong market?

HUI: I’m not. I think it’s difficult!  However, I do think we can make it work. The opportunities are there if the budget is low. There are a lot of directors working, especially new ones.

You’ve told us before that people in Hong Kong are less progressive in their moral judgments than their actions. Did the reception of “All About Love” when it was released in August in Hong Kong (to a HK$3 million gross) reinforce that view, or did it change your mind?

HUI: Everyone we showed the script to loved it, including the stars [the award-winning Sandra Ng and former pop goddess Vivian Chow]. The film was very well received when it was previewed.  But when it was released the box office numbers shocked us. So, in time, I took it as a sign that the more conservative members of the public voted with their feet; the silent majority chose not to see a film on such a subject. There also appeared adverse reviews that treated the film as a serious drama, from the more serious-minded audience who wanted a solemn examination of lesbianism in Hong Kong, who criticized it as flippant.

But the funny thing is, not only did this film test the limits of the Hong Kong audience, it tested my own limits. Making this film made me realize that I’m actually not that comfortable and free when addressing sex. It’s my own limitation, a product of my own upbringing – as much as I tried not to be conservative, indeed I am. So when I have to address issues like sex, I exposed myself! It exposed the fact that I can’t express myself as unreservedly when dealing with topics like sex – not in any particular scene but the film as a whole. I can delve into human emotions doesn’t mean I can do the same thing as freely when it comes to sex. There’s got to be somewhere that you’re not as ready to face yourself.

You’re a director with one of the longest careers in Hong Kong who is also a woman.  You’ve said that female directors in the past had to dress like a man to survive in the business.

HUI: I only said that because I saw how well-dressed and feminine-looking the woman directors are now. In the days when I started, we dressed like construction workers! Perhaps that’s only a ploy, to show people how dedicated we are! (laughs) It might be unconscious,
that we’re so immersed in the dramatic world that we didn’t know we were acting a part. But now being a female director has ceased to be something people comment on. 

Besides, in Hong Kong, in our generation that started out in the 1970s, being a director wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even have director’s chairs. We weren’t particularly well paid. The social standing of a film director wasn’t that high. It was a sort of a plebeian job, a second or third grade one. We didn’t consider ourselves to be big shots. And the studio heads are always practical, there’s never any fawning or sucking up because someone is a director; when we sit down we talk business. There’s very little snobbery about one’s position as a director. The only ones people treated differently were those that were also stars, like Jackie Chan; or the directors who also owned their companies, like Ng See-yuen, who had a chauffeur and a car on standby, but he’s never arrogant or throws his weight around.

Have you thought about developing more on the business side of filmmaking?

HUI: I’m starting to think about that these days. It seems a bit late!

Do you mind being branded a “female director”?

HUI: For a time I did. In the 1980s, when feminism came to Hong Kong, I was often invited to share my sob stories as a woman director. And I couldn’t tell any! So people were very dissatisfied. I was, too, frustrated. Why were they always asking me about sob stories? I didn’t have any! If I had I would certainly have told. Perhaps I was too tomboyish, so everyone treated me as one of the guys on set. I might be an exception. Eventually I stopped minding being called a female director. I thought, whatever.

Do you have any regrets about persisting in your career?

HUI: I don’t have any. I’ve never thought about not persisting – perhaps I should have. There were times when it was tough making films, maybe I should have thought about doing something else and come back.  And I did at one time when it was difficult – I was very productive in other aspects of my life. I taught [at her alma mater, the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Hong Kong, where she’s also artist-in-residence] and directed plays; but I should have tried this tactic earlier.

How do you think you’ve made your mark in Hong Kong cinema?

HUI: I don’t think I’ve made my mark in the business through making any one film but through longevity -- being able to hold on to my independence for so many years and keeping the same attitude. This, I’ve been doing successfully, so for that I’ve made my mark.

Vital Stats
Nationality: Hong Kong

Date of Birth: 23 May 1947

Selected filmography:
“The Spooky Bunch” (1980)
“Boat People” (1982)
“Love in a Fallen City” (1984)
“Song of the Exile” (1990)
“Summer Snow” (1994)
“Eighteen Springs” (1997)
“Ordinary Heroes” (1999)
“July Rhapsody” (2002)
“The Postmodern Life of My Aunt” (2006)
“The Way We Are” (2008)
“Night and Fog” (2009)
“All About Love” (2010)

Notable awards:

1983 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director and Best Film: “Boat People”
1995 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director and Best Film: “Summer Snow”
1995 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards: Best Film: “Summer Snow”
1999 Taiwan Golden Horse Awards: Best Director and Best Film: “Ordinary Heroes”
2000 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Film: “Ordinary Heroes”
2009 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director: “The Way We Are”