The Way We Are

Bottom Line: A serene and sincere portrayal of working-class women.

Hong Kong International Film Festival

HONG KONG -- Like her "Postmodern Life of My Aunt," Ann Hui's new film "The Way We Are" is sympathetic to aging women fending for themselves in urban society. 

But she moves down a few octaves from her flamboyant and at times hysterical "Postmodern" to observe, with a pace that ebbs and flows as naturally as time, the unsung stoicism of Hong Kong's grassroots citizens. Shot on HD in a transparent documentary style, "The Way We Are" evokes the poignancy and humanity in Ozu's works without straining for his formalist aesthetics.

Despite persistent recognition of Hui's artistic integrity, her works largely owed their market profile to having superstars (like Chow Yun Fat or Vicky Zhao) attached. The expedient adoption of the digital medium and a no-star cast for "The Way We Are" seals its fate of relegation to TV or festival exposure.

By setting her film in Tin Shui Wai, a suburban ghetto with a high crime rate and low-income immigrant majority, Hui alludes to the '80s New Wave, when she made social-realist TV drama about Hong Kong's marginalized inhabitants -- Vietnamese refugees or juvenile delinquents. The township is sensationalized by tabloids under the label "city of sadness," for its domestic tragedies. Hui counters this image with protagonists who'd never make the news.

Kwai is a middle-aged widow who toils in a supermarket while her son On languishes in post-exam inertia. Though too busy to pay regular visits to her hospitalized mother, she is a surrogate daughter to a new hand at work. Their trip to meet the old lady's grandson is reminiscent of "Tokyo Story" in expressing the modest hopes of one generation and crushing disappointment of another.

Kwai is played without a trace of acting by Paw Hee Ching, a TV veteran once a leading actress for the leftist studio Great Wall.

The camera enters the run-down homes of the characters with the familiarity of a neighbor, chronicling routines of heavy duty labor or household chores interspersed with birthdays and funerals. Hui builds depth into her characters largely through nuance, without kitchen sink drama and hardly any emotive close-ups.

A casual comment reveals tremendous sacrifices Kwai made. Period family portrait photos merge with archival stills of a factory assembly line -- saluting a generation of women who stoically contributed to Hong Kong's '70s industrial boom. The mother remarks: "Life is hard." Kwai replies: "How hard can it be?" The lightness of tone belies the weight of experience.

Grounded in locality, the film opens with close-ups of Tin Shui Wai's Maipo Nature Reserve and concludes with 1960s archival footage of hundreds of families gathering at Victoria Park for a picnic at Moon Festival time. A panoramic shot of festive lanterns dissolving into a shower of lights is underscored with a song sung by '30s Shanghai diva Wu Yingying about the moon being an envoy of longing.

Such imagery links the film with Shen Fu's neo-realist "Lights of Ten Thousand Homes," about the lower depths in 1948 Shanghai, suggesting Hui's reconnection with the social conscience of early Chinese cinema.

Class Limited
Sales Agent: See Movie Ltd
Director: Ann Hui
Writer: Lou Shiu Wa
Producers: Ann Hui, Wong Yat-ping
Director of photography: Charlie Lam
Art director: Albert Poon
Music: Charlotte Chan
Editor: Chow Cheung Kan.
Kwan: Paw Hee Ching
Old Lady: Chan Lai-wun
On: Leung Chun-lung
Yee: Idy Chan
Miss Tsui: Chan Yuk Lin
Running time -- 90 minutes
No MPAA rating