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Andy Lau as To Minh in a still from Boat People (1982). Ann Hui intended the film to tell a human story that explained why refugees were fleeing Vietnam. Hong Kong film-goers saw it as an allegory of the city’s future under Chinese rule. Photo: Bluebird Film Company

Why Boat People, starring Andy Lau and George Lam, Ann Hui’s hit film about post-war Vietnam, displeased the Chinese and French authorities

  • The director intended Boat People, set in post-war Vietnam, to give context to the flight of people from the country by sea, and based it on refugee testimony
  • A hit in Hong Kong, where film-goers read into it a message Hui hadn’t meant, China saw the film as critical of communism. France fretted at its Cannes premiere

Ann Hui On-wah’s Boat People is a classic of the Hong Kong New Wave movement that, beginning in the late 1970s, helped establish Hong Kong cinema as a player on the international stage.

The film, which is wholly set in Vietnam in 1978, three years after the Communists took control of the country, was a big local hit when it was released in Hong Kong in 1982.

Hui’s intention was to explain the arrival of thousands of refugees from Vietnam by showing the atrocious conditions that were forcing them to flee. But Hong Kong audiences regarded it as an allegory of what life would be like if the territory returned to Chinese rule – something that Hui has always strenuously denied.

Audiences and critics loved the film. Post writer Helen Li described it as “an intense human drama, well-scripted, with both sympathy and control”, while Post critic Terry Boyce said it demonstrated that Hui was a world-class director whose work deserved international acclaim.

Hui told the Post that Boat People was “the film that I have always wanted to make, a film set against a moving backdrop – how people react to the pressure of society and the times”. She added that she hoped the end result lived up to her aspirations.

The story is a grim one. Japanese photographer Akutagawa (George Lam Chi-cheung) is invited back to Da Nang in central Vietnam three years after the American war ends to document life under the new regime. Initially his visit is stage-managed by officials from the Cultural Bureau, but through his connections, he eventually manages to roam freely.

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After he befriends a poor family, the true horror of Vietnamese life is revealed. The children casually scavenge for goods at an execution ground known as the “chicken farm”, while the mother works as a prostitute to make ends meet.

A young Vietnamese man, To Minh (Andy Lau Tak-wah), is sent to a “New Economic Zone”, which is really a forced-labour camp where prisoners are made to clear a minefield with their bare hands.

When Akutagawa realises the truth of the situation, he tries to help young Cam Nuong (Season Ma) and her surviving brother escape on a boat to Hong Kong, but he is killed by Vietnamese soldiers as they board the vessel.

George Lam (left) and Season Ma in a still from Boat People. Photo: Bluebird Film Company

According to an interview Hui gave to critic Harlan Kennedy at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983, the genesis of the film was a real incident, some of which remains in the finished work as part of the storyline of Andy Lau’s character.

In the film, the Vietnamese guards at the labour camp take bribes from the prisoners and allow them to escape by sea. But as soon as they are on the boat, they are shot and killed.

“In the real story, the boat was sunk,” Hui told Kennedy. “What happened was that the Vietnamese had two patrol boats that fired into the hull of the refugee boat, then went around and around it until they created a great whirlpool so that the whole boat was sunk. It was in all the newspapers in Hong Kong at the time.”

Ann Hui won the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 77th Venice Film Festival in 2020. Photo: Reuters

Boat People was originally meant to focus on the escape in the boat, but the expense of filming on water led to Hui’s decision to set the story on land, and to focus on why the Vietnamese were fleeing their country.

The events in the film were mainly based on 100 interviews Hui conducted with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong.

Hui, who studied filmmaking in London and briefly worked as film director King Hu’s assistant, was adept at this kind of research – she began her career making public-information-style short films for the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), using the real-life stories in their files as material.
A still from Boat People showing Vietnamese military personnel in the streets.

She also made four works for Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK’s Below the Lion Rock series, which gave directors a broad mandate to make films about issues that were relevant to Hongkongers.

The third of Hui’s four RTHK films, The Boy from Vietnam, focused on a young Vietnamese immigrant, and the story was sourced from refugee interviews, some of which were held over as sources for her later work.

The Story of Woo Viet, made in 1981, was also about Vietnamese immigrants, and featured Chow Yun-fat as a refugee who falls foul of the criminal underworld in the Philippines.

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“I worked on the project since 1978,” Hui said at Boat People’s Cannes press conference in 1983.

“We interviewed at least 100 refugees who came into Hong Kong since 1978, and also some refugees who had been living on Hainan Island [a Chinese island about 500km southwest of Hong Kong] who left Vietnam in the 1978 exodus from the North of Vietnam to China. We looked at as much written material as we could, and also some books written by refugees and published in Taiwan.”

The character of the Japanese photographer specifically came from a book written by a Japanese reporter in Vietnam in 1975.

Andy Lau as To Minh (left) and George Lam as Akutagawa in a still from Boat People.

Although the film is often referred to as the third part of Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy”, it did not originate with the director – the idea was originally brought to Hui by the film’s producer, Hsia Meng, a popular actress from the 1950s and 1960s.

Unusually for a film of the time, filming took place in China with the cooperation of the Communist authorities and the state-run Pearl River Film Studio. China had been at war with Vietnam in early 1979, and the authorities felt the film would serve as anti-Vietnam propaganda.

Although it seems that Hui knew this was the aim of the Chinese authorities, she has said that they did not interfere with the script or the shoot, except for asking for some sex scenes to be excised.

The film was funded with Hong Kong money, but the Chinese authorities provided a lot of help, Hui said.

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“If we wanted a street cleared for a scene, it was cleared,” Hui told the Post in 1982. “If we wanted a market to be deserted, there was no one to be seen. If we wanted 1,000 extras, we got 1,000 extras.”

Two-thirds of the film was shot on Hainan Island, with the remainder being shot in the city of Zhanjiang, which was once occupied by France and had buildings that resembled the colonial architecture of Vietnam.

Boat People was nominated for 12 awards at the 1983 Hong Kong Film Awards, winning five, including best film and best director. Despite the acclaim it received at home, the film ran into trouble when it had its international premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 1983.

Andy Lau as To Minh in a still from Boat People.

Hui’s nightmarish depiction of life in Vietnam saw it run afoul of the French government, which worried that a high-profile competition screening would damage their relationship with the country. It was consequently taken out of the festival’s competition section and screened as a low-profile “surprise film”.

Even though Boat People was made with the full support of mainland Chinese officials, Beijing took against it because of its negative portrayal of communism, and a planned release in China never happened.

According to a Post report, when Boat People was screened in Hong Kong in 1992 it was the film’s first public showing for 10 years – no distributor wanted to touch it because it had “incurred the displeasure of Beijing”.

Film director Ann Hui on her Venice lifetime achievement award

Hui has always maintained that she intended the film as a humanitarian story rather than a political critique. “Boat People is a survival story set in a tragic moment of history. It is not a propaganda statement against communism,” she told writer Harlan Kennedy.

In an in-depth review in 1982, the Post’s Terry Boyce noted that “a director working in the political context of Hong Kong needs to be cautious over political themes”, and that in Boat People, “political scepticism is balanced by a deep concern for personal and family values”.

In this regular feature series on the best of Hong Kong cinema, we examine the legacy of classic films, re-evaluate the careers of its greatest stars, and revisit some of the lesser-known aspects of the beloved industry.

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