Ann Hui’s Boat People (1982) is one of the most acclaimed, and controversial, Hong Kong films ever made. It is the final film in Hui’s “Vietnamese Trilogy”, following the documentary The Boy from Vietnam (1978) and the fictional The Story of Woo Viet (1981). All three deal in differing ways with stories of Vietnamese refugees after the close of the Vietnam War. Boat People is a narrative feature that follows Japanese photojournalist Akutagawa (George Lam) who returns to Vietnam three years after covering the war’s end. The communist cultural bureau invited him to take photos of the “new economic zones” that will spread images of Vietnam’s prosperity. But Akutagawa also befriends 14-year-old Cam (Season Ma) and her struggling family, and through them he discovers harrowing truths that reveal a repressive ruling regime, forcing many to try and escape to Hong Kong and other ports in tightly packed junk boats. It is a controlled and devastating drama, though on its release its political independence was questioned, since it was filmed with the cooperation of the mainland Chinese government, who allowed her to shoot on location in Hainan Island. The Cannes Film Festival nearly pulled it from the competition because of these fears. But in retrospect, it gains much of its allegorical force as a metaphor for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, and many have framed the film as smuggling in this subversive, despairing message under the noses of Chinese authorities. Whatever you think of its political orientation, it’s a thought-provoking work.
by R. Emmet Sweeney