It was criticized by the Village Voice for being anti-Communist propaganda, even though it was the first Honk Kong film allowed to shoot on PRC territory. Of course, the Communists depicted in the film were from Vietnam, a country that had just spanked Mainland China in a war that is hard for us to imagine today. Regardless, as a humanist who always values human dignity over ideology (in stark contrast to the Voice), Ann Hui scrupulously depicts how the powerless struggle to survive in her 1982 classic Boat People, which screens during the San Francisco Film Society’s annual Hong Kong Cinema series.
During the Vietnam War, left-wing Japanese photo-journalist Shiomi Akutagawa consciously sided Viet Cong, so they are happy to invite him back for a propagandistic life-after-Liberation photo-essay. At least, his minder and her superior in the Cultural Bureau, the French-educated Nguyen, intend it to be propaganda. They carefully orchestrate his visits to Potemkin “New Economic Zones.” Yet, despite their efforts, Akutagawa starts to see cracks in the façade.
When they reluctantly allow him free unescorted passage through the streets of Danang, he starts to see the real Vietnam, including the execution of dissidents, the “registration” of ethnic Chinese, and widespread hunger. He also befriends Cam Nuong, a resilient fourteen-year-old who works odd jobs to support her two brothers and grief-stricken part-time prostitute mother.
Akutagawa tries to help Cam Nuong’s family monetarily, but his attention also brings government scrutiny. However, it is the experiences of To Minh, the lover of the French-style bistro-proprietress that Akutagawa meets through Nguyen who really opens the photojournalist’s eyes. On leave from a more representative New Economic Zone (N.E.Z.), To Minh has been desperately raising boat passage for himself, his mistress, and his best friend. Akutagawa will understand why, when he invites himself along on To Minh’s transport back to his concentration camp-like N.E.Z.
Boat People was not just Ann Hui’s international breakout, it was also one of the first roles to really generate recognition for Andy Lau. As To Minh, he actually looks reasonably Vietnamese. The dangerous charisma and brooding intensity are also already evident. George Lam similarly passes for Japanese quite convincingly, yet the way he quietly but compellingly portrays Akutagawa’s mounting disillusionment and moral outrage is even more impressive. Cora Miao and Shi Mengqi greatly humanize the film as To Minh’s mistress and the world-weary Nguyen, but Season Ma’s Cam Nuong really supplies the film’s heart, soul, and bitter hemlock.
Throughout the film, we can see Hui’s knack for eliciting sensitive performances. It was a big hit in HK, but it was way more truth than the world was ready for. For instance, Cannes rather gutlessly moved it out of competition to placate critics. However, Boat People would not be silenced or spiked.