Ordinary Heroes (1999)
Produced & directed by: Ann Hui
Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2000:
Reviewing Ann Hui's acclaimed film from a Western point of view (and quite a feeble, naive one at that) is perhaps not the brightest idea but I believe in offering up a perspective that is tuned enough, even though the film structures itself around political times of China and Hong Kong, dating back to the 70s. Shot more like a docu-drama (1*), many times words get repeated in these reviews and they should be regarded as key words sometimes. Fragmented is this week's chosen one and starting our analysis with that word in mind, it's quite hard to sum up the plot therefore. Occasionally clued into what's going on politically via news broadcasts and a recurring street theater scene (2*), ultimately John Chan's script concerns people and that's where the strengths can be found for a Westerner such as myself who is looking in.
We start in modern times where Father Kam (Anthony Wong) is introduced but mainly the plight of Lee Siu Tung (Lee Kang-Sheng) and an apparent close one Sow Fung Tai (Rachel Lee - Sex & Zen II, Crazy Love) demands attention. Sow suffers from lost memory and her interaction with Lee is about kickstarting that memory again, even if Lee admits he's been manipulating her to think they've been lifelong friends. No matter as this will all be forgotten again but the sound of a harmonica triggers progress in Sow. Cut back to the late 70s where Lee and Sow are two young souls living in a time of turmoil but not taking the time to ask why that is the case. Political activist Yau Ming-Foon (Tse Kwan-Ho - The Mad Phoenix) along with Father Kam triggers curiosity in the kids and as years go by, they stand by their activist friends, searching for a personal place to belong to themselves...
Producer/director Hui takes a political stance no doubt and offers no true easy way into being clued into the events of the era. Meaning she'd rather create cinema for "her" people and not outside eyes but obviously that can't be argued against. Still as the narrative jumps around, offering fragmented depth, Ordinary Heroes has a theme well worth appreciating. Hui almost perfect an artform here of expressing little depth but manages to place the expressions into a narrative web that actually creates that utmost depth. Words of the extensive kind are unnecessary as are showing crucial events. No, it all crucially and skillfully builds on characters such as Lee and Sow Fung, two outsiders. Neither of them unwillingly supports the main political protest of the time, which is the inhuman treatment of Mainland fishermen's wives not being allowed to go on shore on Hong Kong island. Blame is put on old age colonial rules and obviously anyone arising protests against these notions is a troublemaker. Rules say troublemakers should be put down and that's a disturbing trend in the scenes with policemen here. Just doing their job and being as disillusioned/naive. It's harsh talk by screenwriter John Chan and director Hui but while one-sided, the views doesn't become negated as such. The little people struggle like this. This is their lives, views and stance. But even the little people become selfish and demand attention when concentration instead must be put forth on the problem in the whole scheme of things. Tensions arise within the party, different opinions on how this leftist politics should be steered, yet coming back to Lee and Sow Fung, they're really played into the hands of some expected, concrete cinema. Looking for self-realization and love, having stood by figures such as Yau Ming-Foon only to be disappointed and disillusioned for little of the same reasons as others.
Yes, it's partly a soap opera when looking at it but Hui's fragmented storytelling is actually very absorbing and skillfully combined with the documentary approach to the material. She goes through the years with her two young subjects at hand where they learn to appreciate the ordinary heroes of the piece and largely the fragmented character depth seems to pay off. Knowing history (and knowing where we started off in the film), no calculated conclusion could ever be reached here. All embodied via a marvelous scene towards the end where it's clearly ambiguous whether it's worth protesting big or if it's reached the point where the small ways are as worthy to stand by.
It seems that there is a lot to get here then but Ann Hui isn't out to create cinema you buy your soda and popcorn along with. At 2+ hours it's even tiring to get through some random images that you desperately want a reward for enduring. It's hard to say if all deserve that viewer recognition and there's a problem with Ordinary Heroes, along with a few other Hui movies, that the long lasting effect seems absent. Efforts like Eighteen Springs felt similar in style but managed to grow and Ordinary Heroes perhaps is best FULLY appreciated by its audience close at home. We Westerners utilize patience and admiration for the class acts from the likes of Anthony Wong and Tse Kwan-Ho, both being commanding presences. A final mention must go to now veteran actress and former Category III starlet Rachel Lee (also known as Loletta Lee). Saddled with a big, serious role, it indicates more of a virgin start for Lee the actress who doesn't ignite the screen as such but does a service to Hui's frame by fitting it to a decent degree. But having flashed your points, it's not a given to flow smoothly into respectable territory as evident by Lee's filmography since then. But we support her as well as Ann Hui's grand ambitions to Ordinary Heroes. A personal message from her, to her, to the people and if given insight to this lowly little Swede, cinema still shows it travels with underlying strength. Not fist.
Universe presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.81:1 approximately. Print has minor wear but with contrast being a bit on the high side and a smeary look accompanying the transfer, it ranks a little below par.
Advertised on the cover as being mono, the film comes with Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks but as I'm not equipped with such a system, my assessment of this disc aspect will be left off this review.
The English subtitles appear very flawless in terms of grammar and creates quite a full understanding of what's on screen. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available.
Standard Universe extras accompanies this political package. Star's Files for Anthony Wong and Tse Kwan-Ho ticks off their careers in a basic way while the trailer for is also available.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson
(2) As described in the beginning, based on the activist Ng Ching Yin who died of cancer in 1994.