Song of the Exile (1990)

Ann Hui’s underrated work is a masterful commingling of memory, identity and diasporas.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Ann Hui
1990 | Hong Kong | Drama | 100 mins | 1.85:1 | Cantonese, Mandarin & Japanese
PG (passed clean) 

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Lu Hsiao-Fen, Tien Feng
Plot: Hueyin reluctantly makes a trip back to Hong Kong to celebrate her sister’s wedding, despite being estranged from her Japanese mother, who married a Chinese soldier after WWII.
Awards: Won 1 Golden Horse – Best Original Screenplay. Nom. for 2 Golden Horses – Best Feature Film, Best Makeup & Costume Design
Source: Fortune Star Media

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream

Review #1,656

(Reviewed at Perspectives Film Festival ’18)

Spoilers: No

Ann Hui has made more than two dozen films, but a sizable number of her works are difficult to find and some are in serious need of restoration.  1990’s Song of the Exile is one of them, desperately looking for a much-needed facelift.

Shown at the Perspectives Film Festival in a rare screening on Digibeta tape, Hui’s film deserves some kind of reappraisal for it offers aplenty to audiences who are able to resonate with its themes of identity and memory.

A semi-autobiographical work about a woman trying to find a (let alone her) place in the world, Song of the Exile follows Hueyin (Maggie Cheung) as she reluctantly makes a trip back to Hong Kong, after completing her graduate studies in the UK, to celebrate her sister’s wedding.

Hueyin has been estranged from her mother (who’s Japanese but married a Chinese soldier after the war despite the Sino-Japanese tensions) for a few years, but as much as this trip opens up painful wounds, it is also an opportunity for reconciliation and understanding.

Hui’s film is surprisingly layered in its storytelling, at least more so than you would associate with a commercial-leaning picture. 

It reveals how memory and identity are interlinked through flashbacks that are colour-tinged with nostalgia, particularly in relation to the immigrant experience, of being in different diasporas, of building a new home in a foreign land, something that Hueyin’s mother has struggled with for many years.

Hueyin herself is no stranger to this too, but the difference is that her identity is fragmentary whilst her mother’s wholly displaced.

With a number of settings to play with, including the UK in the prologue, and later on in Hong Kong, and a large stretch in Japan, whilst the flashbacks mainly revolve around Macau and Canton, Hui’s work brings to the fore not just personal identities and histories, but setting them against the larger notions of national identities and histories.

In retrospect, one might note how remarkably prescient the film’s portrayal of the uncertainties of identity politics was, one that would manifest in full bloom seven years later in the post-1997 handover.

Grade: A-




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