Ann Hui's Boat People was one of the few attempts to understand the plight of the refugees, writes Clarence Tsui
Ann Hui On-wah's Boat People has stirred up its fair share of controversy. Her 1982 film, which examined social problems in communist Vietnam, became an embarrassment for its mainland backers, who funded the project and arranged for Hui to shoot it in Hainan.
The film was subsequently barred by the Hong Kong authorities from further screening for almost a decade. It was the same in Taiwan, where officials overlooked Boat People's anti-communist content and took offence because it was made on the mainland.
What makes Boat People notable is its achievements beyond such political repercussions. Made when the influx of Vietnamese illegal immigrants was at its height, Hui's film attempted to tackle the roots of one of the largest humanitarian disasters Hong Kong has seen in recent history.
Set in post-liberation Vietnam, the narrative centres on Japanese photojournalist Akutagawa (George Lam Chi-cheung) who strays off an official tour of the country and, through the acquaintance of a local young woman Cam Nuong (Season Ma), discovers a society riddled with poverty.
Boat People painted a grim picture of a country that was, according to party cadres, rejoicing in emancipation and national unity. One of the characters, To Minh (played by Andy Lau Tak-wah in his first film), symbolised Hui's view of the new Vietnamese order. An inmate in one of the camp-like New Economic Districts the Vietnamese government set up after its victory over the south in 1975, Minh was forced to clear landmines, while sustaining himself on meagre rations. Minh, who eventually escaped from the camp, was shot the moment he stepped onto a vessel bound for Hong Kong.
Although Hui admits to having a dim view of life in communist Vietnam, she says she never wanted to make an anti-communist film.
'I made the film out of sympathy for the boat people, but also fascination about their experiences,' she says. 'It's not a story bashing communism. I didn't make Boat People to arbitrate about politics - and I understand that what I have is only the view of things from the refugees' perspective. 'I won't deny that I was naive back then. I never thought about the complications the film would run into. I think that was what brought me through because I was just being earnest about what I do.'
Hui was exposed to images of war through television and her involvement in peace marches as a student in the University of Hong Kong and then the London Film School in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She might now deny being political with her films ('I didn't really have that much of a political consciousness in those days'), but she was one of only a handful of directors who dared to examine and publicise the plight of the Vietnamese.
Boat People was the finale of what was later called her Vietnam Trilogy. The first was The Boy from Vietnam, a one-hour episode she produced for Radio Television Hong Kong's Below the Lion Rock series in 1978. It features refugees speaking about their plight back home and their life in Hong Kong.
Three years later, Hui made The Story of Woo Viet, a full-length film that traces the road to doom for former South Vietnamese soldier Woo Viet (Chow Yun-fat), whose escape towards what he saw as freedom - first to Hong Kong and then the Philippines - were fraught with ever darker twists, whether threats from murderous communist agents in a Hong Kong refugee camp or triad kingpins in the Manila underworld, and seeing his lover, Shum Ching (Cherie Chung Cho-hung), kidnapped and forced into prostitution.
What underlines Hui's three films about Vietnamese refugees is her humanist view towards people she saw as victims of circumstance. Not that such sympathy was endemic. 'It was common among intellectuals and students of the age to feel for the refugees,' she says. 'But it's not something you find among ordinary people.'
Such indifference towards the Vietnamese - which would later erupt into hostility during the 1980s and 1990s - was evident from a general lack of artistic interest about an issue that was on Hong Kong's doorstep. The refugee problem and political crisis in Vietnam hardly registered in celluloid in Hong Kong.
What may be more revealing about Hong Kong's collective psyche towards the refugees is Roar of the Vietnamese, a violent thriller starring Lau Ching-wan as an illegal immigrant who escapes from a detention centre and is subsequently recruited as a contract killer with two fellow escapees. After executing their orders, the trio - now dispensable - are led into a trap.
'It's difficult to say films like this didn't portray parts of the truth,' says playwright James Cheung, who wrote Po Lam Refugee Camp, about a social worker's attempts to give solace to inmates in a detention centre. 'Young Vietnamese gangsters are largely known for committing crimes in a more atrocious manner than their Chinese counterparts. The problem we should ask in writing screenplays, however, is whether we should address why they are so.
'There was this group of people in Hong Kong who saw no future and had to lead their lives in such cramped conditions - a family to one small bed. Reporters were writing about visiting the camps and happening on people engaging in sexual intercourse, because it's so crowded a place. These are people whose dignity was stripped to such a degree.'
Cheung says the Sha Tin Theatre production of his play was brave in those days, amid mass protests against the refugees.
'Those were the days when Vietnamese refugees on licensed trips into town would get beaten up by locals,' he says.
Not surprisingly, the play didn't do well. 'That was a time when no one wanted contact with the boat people. All Hongkongers wanted was to forget the whole thing.'