[Last Film I Watch] Boat People (1982)

Boat People poster

English Title: Boat People
Original Title: Tau ban no hoi 投奔怒海
Year: 1982
Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese, Vietnamese, Japanese
Genre: Drama
Director: Ann Hui 许鞍华
Writer: Kang Chien Chiu 邱刚健
Music: Wing-fai Law 罗永晖
Cinematography: Zong Ji Huang 黄宗基
George Lam 林子祥
Season Ma 马斯晨
Andy Lau 刘德华
Cora Miao 缪骞人
Mengshi Qi 奇梦石
Meiying Jia 贾梅婴
Jialing Hao 郝嘉陵
Shujin Lin 林书锦
Shouqian Wang 王守谦
Rating: 7.3/10

Boat People 1982

In celebration of Ann Hui’s record-breaking 5th win of BEST DIRECTOR in HONG KONG FILM AWARDS for her epic THE GOLDEN ERA (2014), which is also the eventual recipient of BEST PICTURE, it is an opportune time to track back her first win at the age of 35 for her fourth feature BOAT PEOPLE, which has established her as a pioneer in the New Wave movement of Hong Kong Cinema.

One requisite notion before watching this film is that the whole account is as fictional as in the movie where the entire Vietnamese populace including our Japanese protagonist, Shiomi Akutagawa (Lam), all speak fluent Cantonese. In fact, the script is a purely fabricated by the screenwriter Kang Chien Chiu, at a time when Hong Kong people were uncertain of their future and for fear of the social overhaul if Chinese Communist Party would eventually take over the colonised financial hub. Chiu’s anti-communist slant is the elephant-in-the-room although Hui has tried to sidestep the politics-sensitive issue by emphasising that the film is more focused on personal struggle under the extreme circumstances.

Shot in Hainan island of China as a stand-in for a tropical Ho Chi Minh City, Shiomi is a Japanese photography who has been granted a license to shoot the new life of Vietnamese people under the government of Communist party after the Vietnam War. The commencing flourishing impressions are disrupted when Shiomi decides to roam the city alone without the company of the bureaucratic officials, soon, he is attracted by an impecunious girl Cam Nuong (Ma) on the street, who has two younger brothers and a sick mother (Hao) to raise. Slowly Shiomi realises all his previous photo-shooting visits are the front arranged with the government to give a grand veneer for foreigners, the harsh reality stuns Shiomi, he witnesses extreme poverty, the utter disregard for human life and death can happen anytime anywhere, no one cares, the poor refuses to be relocate to the so-called “new economic district” because young men are violently man-handled to manually remove land mines under cruel administration from the authorities. Disillusioned and unsettled by the darkness and savagery, Shiomi decides to help Cam Nuong and his younger brother flee from this country, but the sacrifice might exceed his expectation.

The film doesn’t recoil at the blood-letting casualties, and the intensity of waiting for a land-mine to explode at any moment is excruciatingly taxing, although Hui doesn’t intend to let those scenes to be too startling with long cues as a ballast. The murky and repressing air engulfs lives without hope, except fro Cam Nuong, she is precocious but has yet been contaminated by the vice around her, sincere laughters can still burst out between her and Shiomi, Season Ma injects a spirited purity and spunky pizzazz into Cam Nuong in her career-debut performance. George Lam exhibits an affable persona as an outsider involuntarily elevated to be a true hero with unyielding ethical virtues.

This is also Andy Lau’s screen-debut too, the subplot around him can evoke quite a harrowing weep. Cora Miao, who play’s a 40-year-old mistress using her body as the leverage of survival under the tumultuous situation, configures a mesmerising presence with intriguing back-stories left unfinished. Mengshi Qi is Nguyen, the bureaucrat who finds a camaraderie in Shiomi, represents both the executioner and the victim of the government, his poetic reflection “The revolution of Vietnamese is successful, but my own revolution fails” – narrated beautifully with a golden sunset in the background.

The production looks a bit dated by today’s standards, and certain editing hiccups are rather noticeable but if we can be impartial to the story’s pejorative nature regarding to the Communist regime, the film is a well-considered ode to humanity and altruism when it is urgently needed, also more remarkably, it would be an impossible task for Ann Hui to get a green light under today’s cinematic weather neither in mainland China nor in Hong Kong.


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