Boat People (1982)

It’s tragic and overly melodramatic for sure, but Ann Hui’s then-controversial work about the sufferings of the Vietnamese post-Vietnam War remains a significant entry of the burgeoning Hong Kong New Wave.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,556

Dir. Ann Hui
1982 | Hong Kong | Drama | 109min | 1.85:1 | Cantonese & Japanese
Not rated – likely to be M18 for some violence and disturbing scenes

Cast: George Lam, Cora Miao, Season Ma, Andy Lau
Plot: A Japanese photojournalist revisits Vietnam after the Liberation and learns harsh truths about its regime and its “New Economic Zones”
Awards: Official Selection (Cannes)
Source: Edko Films

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Slightly Disturbing – Human Cruelty; Communism; Poverty
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
Spoilers: No

Although stirring up controversy back in the early 1980s, Ann Hui’s Boat People remains a significant entry of the burgeoning Hong Kong New Wave. 

This is as varyingly Asian a film as it can be—shot in China, funded by Hong Kong, starring George Lam who plays a Japanese reporter, and in a story set in Vietnam after the victory of the Vietcongs, with everyone (rather amusingly) speaking in Cantonese. 

It was banned in China, and the Cannes Film Festival infamously pulled it out of the main competition due to French political interests in Vietnam. 

Forty years on, Hui’s work is best seen as a dramatised snapshot of how things were like for the Vietnamese after the war, with its overly melodramatic elements and somewhat humanistic, documentary-style filmmaking taking precedence, perhaps more so than any particular political reading. 

“Why don’t you photograph the sea and clouds? Why photograph people? They’re so ugly.”

Season Ma is particularly good as a poor teenage girl who befriends Lam’s character as both find that their lives will be irreversibly changed as the narrative leads up to its precarious climax.  A young Andy Lau also makes a subplot appearance as a Vietnamese man at wits’ end, who like many others, is hoping to escape to a better life. 

These refugees, or ‘boat people’, whose fates remain uncertain, even in 1982 when the film was released, became a point of contentious debate over the issue of human rights as Hong Kong (and elsewhere) saw tens of thousands arriving at her borders. 

There are some harrowing scenes of violence, and Hui doesn’t compromise on the blood and gore.  Although she has made more resonating films in my opinion, such as her debut feature, The Secret (1979), Song of the Exile (1990) and Summer Snow (1995), it is hard to find an entry in her filmography more disturbing and tragic than this. 

Grade: B+


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