Song Of The Exile (1990)

Directed by: Ann Hui
Written by: Wu Nien-Jen
Producer: Janey Chiu
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Luk Siu-Fan, Waise Lee, Siu Seung, Tien Feng, Yeung Ting-Yan & Kaji Kentaro

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1991:
Best Picture
Best Director (Ann Hui)
Best Screenplay (Wu Nien-Jen)

Returning home from England for her sister's wedding, Hueyin (Maggie Cheung) faces an expected but elevated cold act from her mother (Luk Siu-Fan). In the air lies blame about her leaving the family and the two then confronting each other leads them on to a trip to Japan to discover truths about what got them to the emotional place they are in. Revealed years earlier was Hueyin's mother's real name Aiko and that she was brought from Japan by her father (Waise Lee) during war times...

Reportedly an autobiographical tale about her relationship with her mother, Ann Hui weaves complex character relations across the borders in both past- and present political times, making no new friends or inviting anyone smoothly into her underplayed cinema. Yes, it does make for distanced but worthy viewing, which is something a seasoned Hui fan would be very much aware of. Song of The Exile does travel a bit further than beyond the simple antagonistic relationship at the heart of the film and is therefore probably a flick MOST appreciated upon multiple viewing or rather by the audience around the filmmaker. I'm not complaining.

Talking about the emotional distance, distance across the borders running through the characters, Maggie Cheung's Hueyin has felt forsaken by her mother and chosen the Macau based grandparents (grandfather played by veteran Tien Feng) as her preferred authority figures. Boarding school and study abroad ends up being her path, being a fair amount in touch with the 60s and 70s war- and political turmoil. Part a choice again as a bit of a rebellious act towards her mother who doesn't view political demonstrations as a good thing, Hui then gently takes us on the awakening journey as the film takes flight to Japan. The gentle surprise of the film is of course Hueyin's prior realization (last of the children to find out even) that her mother is not Chinese but Japanese, explaining distance in this regard and the defiance. In both parties.

It's credit to Hui and writer Wu Nien-Jen (Osmanthus Alley, also starring Luk Siu-Fan) that the mother-daughter act isn't going down well-worn roads even though it's a classic clash. The mother even revolts against the daughter in her quest to finally mend wounds and all the way through each old friend she reacquaints herself with in Japan, so many similarities concerning betrayal of tradition and family pops up, with Hui suitably being quiet about her wishes for the viewer.

The choice is correct even though never affecting to the point of outbreak into tears in the viewer (although my male macho button may have something to do with that) but it's quite easy to appreciate the personal story presented before us, one rife with affection. Affection that doesn't mean the world eventually turned into a perfect place for Hui. Her political subplot is indeed that, the subplot and while crucial to many character aspects, Song Of The Exile really is about two journeys. The challenge mentioned may lay in the unexpected web of depth the film presents but with multiple viewings, nuances are surely bound to come out. Something that is applicable to the fitting performances by Maggie Cheung and Luk Siu-Fan (playing old AND young as in Osmanthus Alley but again impressively).

Ann Hui's work may have gelled the instantly elsewhere (The Story Of Woo Viet, Summer Snow, Eighteen Springs) but it's well worth it when her cinema slowly creeps up on you, even as a reviewer finishes his or her final thoughts in the ending paragraph. It's Hong Kong cinema distancing itself from its usually associated traits but it's there for the taking, even by smaller number of people. I'm sure Ann would agree that as long as she gets to make movies, small appreciation is quite all right. The emotional journey taken to home grounds in reality and in the movie surely was worth it as well.

The DVD:

Taiwan's Hoker Records presents the film in a cropped aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Sourced from vhs, everything on display is rather dull. Colours are weak, sharpness and detail lacking greatly but it's the only version of the film currently available on dvd, at least for those in need of an English subtitle translation. Some section contains tape damage but not overly distracting signs of it pops up.

The Mandarin/Japanese/English Dolby Digital 2.0 track in general sounds very muffled but it's not terribly distracting. While mostly post-synched, Mandarin is seemingly the intended Chinese dialect.

The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles contains very few spelling errors and are readable for all but one brief moment where they are displayed against a light background. There are no extras.

Please note that this version of the film seems shortened for whatever reason. Running 89 minutes, 27 seconds, the Media Asia laserdisc clocks in at 98 minutes, 43 seconds and even with NTSC/PAL speedups, conversions etc, this rather massive difference is indeed a difference. A chunk in the Japan segments is lifted out entirely, dealing with Hueyin's language barrier, barrier between her and her mother while Aiko's plans for her family house also meets resistance from the resident housekeeper. Taiwan dvd then picks up at the start of the bike scene. The slow moving ending crawl is almost wholly removed on the dvd as well. The subtitles on each version uses the same translation mostly (with the Taiwan version adding English translation for most of the English dialogue) but uses different fonts so clearly the subtitling was done twice (during a time where the cut also happened?).

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson