Boat People (1982)

Directed by: Ann Hui
Written by: Yau-Daai On-Ping
Producer: Hsia Meng
Starring: George Lam, Season Ma, Cora Miao, Kei Mung-Sek, Hao Jia-Ling, Jia Mei-Ying & Andy Lau

Buy the DVD at:

Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1983:
Best Picture
Best Director (Ann Hui)
Best Screenplay (Yau-Daai On-Ping)
Best New Performer (Season Ma)
Best Art Direction (Tony Au)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1983:
Best Actor (George Lam)
Best Actress (Season Ma)
Best Actress (Cora Miao)
Best New Performer (Andy Lau)
Best Cinematography (Wong Chung-Gei)
Best Film Editing (Kin Kin)
Best Original Film Score (Law Wing-Fai)

On an assignment in South Vietnam 3 years after Danang was liberated, Japanese photographer Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam) has a positive outlook on the land presented before him as opposed to past years spent there. However walking around on his own without the "aid" of the Cultural Bureau, Akutagawa discovers via the people on the ground, most notably Cam Nuong (Season Ma), that all is not well with the country....

Concluding a thematic trilogy concerning Vietnamese refugees, often referred to as boat people, within Below The Lion Rock Ann Hui's short "From Vietnam" established darkness and idea but little effect. Continuing in the early and applauded Chow Yun-Fat vehicle The Story Of Woo Viet, feature filmmaking saw Hui's anger and need to establish a magnifying glass on issues come to fruition. Boat People concluded themes but remained a clouded effort thanks to the lack of availability prior to the Edko dvd release. Now viewers can follow the further dips into dark, bottomless wells, the super-early career of Andy Lau (and hair) and the award winning drama that according to Ann Hui, lacked political motives. Didn't stop the film from the aura of political controversy however but Hui stated back at the tumultuous time at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983, "Boat People is a survival story set in a tragic moment in history. It's not a propaganda statement against Communism." You shouldn't turn to for any such deconstruction of content however. We just write what we feel which is a valid point even though I've never been close to the events of the film. There, I've excused myself for writing a poor review but I can still go with Hui's angle and like it. And I do.

It's interesting to read Hui talk of the dirty, gritty nature of The Story Of Woo Viet being a hindrance for some viewers to take it seriously but years later it still achieves its effect through the tool. Doing extensive research for Boat People, through interviews with refugees and a Japanese reporter that acted as a character basis for George Lam's Shiomi Akutagawa, it's fiction/full on reality and risk-taking of the highest degree as also detailed in Hui's interview with Film Comment. So is it a feeble journey to take just to make a statement or a valid risk in order to enlighten non-politically? The answer is yes many times during the feature but true to form, Ann Hui doesn't exactly use high speed-means to make some of us agree but we're fine with it. It's not about affecting to the point where some of our macho buttons gets ejected but getting the EFFECT. In particular when the final frame has gone by.

Without reading up on the history and political turmoil in Vietnam, that choice acts as a letter of challenge to Hui the director as you want to know how far into the darkness she can pull a viewer that's always been on the safe side of the fence. Truth of the matter is, the basic synopsis from the back of the dvd helps us immensely to be drawn in and all throughout Hui's quote of the film being a survival story rings eerily true. In an upgrade technically despite shooting in back alleys literally and figuratively, in a time of liberation we get an outside figure the steering forces deem a good tool to use. Here's where some politics enter story-wise as Vietnam wants to show its good sides and Akutagawa have certainly only been on board to do his job, to claim fame. But it's a back alley that changes part of his perspective. An image that has lingered, images that start to linger and when going deeper into the truths of the new Vietnam, he can't hide behind a camera anymore. The view is enhanced, extra wide if you will and the finger isn't just on the button of the camera. It's at the button of making a difference, changing fates. But Hui doesn't just set out to focus on the outsider of the poor people but the leftover rulers to a degree that witnesses their beloved country evaporating. Although her subjects ultimately remain the people in the English title of the film, the select gallery we get a sense of and Hui manages to, for better or worse, transport us to the unflinching imagery of the times.

Effective in her narrative skills (but be forewarned that the pace is very slow), direction of actors (who knew George Lam would have a movie in his filmography where he fit in to a T?!) and also the split-second detours into violent, bloody imagery, Hui works up a superb technical sense in combination with the disturbing nature that lurks in the surroundings. Not even lurking at all times even, one of the most vivid images is the scene in which Season Ma's Cam Nuong goes over recently executed corpses for rewards to reap. It's a dark concept of the poor having to take the leftovers but also the dog eat dog mentality one must adhere to, even if RESIGNING to fate (i.e. NOT wanting a position at the New Economy Zones that in reality are labour camps). Also see adults and children become mortal victims of random missteps, the "reward" of not being a good comrade and you get a sense that Hui utilizes a magnifying glass again. It's in your face but not at the expense of turning the film into something poor.

It is indeed tragedy, it is survival and it's feeble/unselfish sacrifice in order to get to the point Chow Yun-Fat was in at the start of The Story Of Woo Viet. And that's not a happy place to be but it's one step closer to... something.... perhaps. Equally one for Ann Hui as she concludes her Vietnam cycle, Boat People is open for interpretation but us lacking any interest or knowledge in politics use the human part of our brain to see that the director was very much spot on when talking of the film back in the day. Go whichever route you want. I've taken mine and I won't/can't do anything else. For what it's worth, it does equal praise directed towards what remains a strong-willed filmmaker even today.

The DVD:

Edko presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.82:1 approximately. Very little damage is present while the subdued colour scheme looks tuned. Sharpness surprises as well so even sans anamorphic enhancement, the presentation is delightful for what it is.

The Cantonese (with slight usage of Japanese and English too) Dolby Digital 2.0 track has some cracks audible at points and feels a little harsh sporadically. Overall presented in a bearable way. Traditional Chinese subtitles are also included.

The English subtitles feature only a minor amount of grammar- and spelling errors. Rest of the way is a highly coherent, well-worded translation possibly done originally by Tony Raynes. Only extra is the trailer.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson