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Ann Hui's Boat People rings true today

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Released in 1982 to major acclaim, Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s Boat People still resonates profoundly.

Winner of five prizes at the Hong Kong Film Awards of that year, the authentic and personal cinematic tale candidly illustrates the chaotic background that drives a person to pay top dollar to board a leaky fishing boat with their young children to escape their home country.

Its title in Cantonese, Tau ban no hoi or Into the Raging Sea, rings truer still with its tone of inevitable tragedy.

The on-screen drama is not excessively manipulated by musical score; instead it is an understated portrayal of daily life upon which the cold boot comes crashing down. It shares this realistic perspective with Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film In This World, which follows two Afghan boys as they are smuggled overland to Europe.

Boat People is told through the experiences of Japanese reporter Shiomi Akutagawa. He is our eye on post-war Vietnam, on an official guided visit. All initially seems well as he photographs happy children in New Economic Zone No. 16.

But Akutagawa learns the truth as he becomes emotionally entwined with several characters, including To Minh (Andy Lau; Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers), who has been living in N.E.Z. No. 15 working on “landmine duty”. Shots and explosions still ring out three years on from the Vietnam War.

Hui’s big-screen work on Vietnam began with 1981’s The Story of Woo Viet (starring Chow Yun-Fat, of A Better Tomorrow). These works were borne of her experience interviewing Vietnamese boat people who had arrived in Hong Kong in the late 1970s – a recent historical background of which I was personally unaware despite having myself arrived as a baby in Hong Kong in the 1980s in the safety of a Cathay Pacific 747 jet.

The poet DA Levy wrote “return to your childhood and kick out the bottom”; in this context, it seems a fitting reminder that we should try to relate personally to the troubles of this deeply inter-connected world, in the interests of future prosperity for all.

Boat People screened for one night only as part of the Ann Hui career retrospective, which continues at the Mercury Cinema throughout the OzAsia Festival until October 4.

Visit InDaily’s OzAsia Festival hub for more reviews and stories

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