In 2020, Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui became the first woman director to win the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement from the Venice Film Festival. Hui has enjoyed one of the most eclectic and diverse careers of any filmmaker in the last 40 years of cinema. She started as a protégé of the legendary King Hu in the 1970s, and hasn’t rested her laurels since. She kickstarted her own directorial career with a trilogy of social realist films about Hoa refugees post-Vietnam, and has gone on to do three Eileen Chang literary adaptations, globe-trotting historical epics like her master Hu’s, low-key slice-of-life domestic dramas, and even commercial ghostly thrillers.
What truly separates her though isn’t one or two career peaks, but the longevity of her career. Unlike her contemporaries, who have gone into semi-retirement, Hui shows no signs of stopping. She has leapfrogged her peers like Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To at the Hong Kong Film Awards. She remains prolific, and her work in the 2010s sees her doing Brechtian fourth wall breaks and semi-documentary modes. Even at the age of 74, Hui is far from finished. In 2021, she appeared as the main subject of the feature documentary Keep Rolling.
At the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival, Cinema Escapist joins Hui for an interview about her illustrious career.
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In many of the interviews I’ve read, including Keep Rolling, interviewers often ask you about your personal life or thoughts, but rarely about your craft and style. What kind of philosophy or thought process do you have about filmmaking elements such as cinematography and editing?
My thought process begins at the scriptwriting stage. I believe how you shoot your film is inseparable from the structure and story of your script. However, sometimes I come across ideas during different phases of the script’s completion, such as an idea for structure. In this case, I will talk to the screenwriter about it.
I have observed that filmmakers nowadays treat structure as a stylistic tool, or separate structure from story. But I think that violates the main difference between cinema and television. In television, the story is conformed to fit a certain structure. That’s why, in cinema, I think it is very important to let your story dictate structure.
I consider structure to be even more important than how you shoot your film. If you get your structure right, you can design your camera and lighting accordingly, unlike the traditional method of receiving your script and designing the film’s style scene by scene. I’d rather have an overall look for the entire film. This is my process right now. But you can rest assured that I do think about style, as that is my job as a director [laughs].
So you consider your style adaptable to different scripts?
I should say, this is the only method I know. I don’t know how to decide a style of filmmaking then come up with a story for it. But I don’t think my way is absolute. I know there are other filmmakers who are stylists and do things differently from me.
Throughout your career, many of your films break the fourth wall. Some of them are half-documentary, half-fictional films, or fictional films with documentary elements. What draws you specifically to this mode of expression?
I think this is something that has to do with one’s personality. In the past, many directors had visual pictures in their heads that included actors’ performances. But I am more passive, and more like a documentary filmmaker. On set, if an actor behaves in a way I consider suitable for the film, I approve of it.
At the beginning of my career, I thought this method of directing was a little lazy and imprecise. It’s almost like I approve of everything [laughs], and my control wasn’t good enough. But I have now accepted this part of myself, and even want to promote it. I’d rather make this my process and refine it.
In Keep Rolling, you mentioned that, despite the length of your career, you think you are still getting better and better at filmmaking. Are there any specific examples of scenes or techniques that make you say that?
I think it’s a little vain if I say [the examples] myself. I don’t think they are entirely in my recent works. As everyone knows, films are the crystallization of group work, not entirely decided by the director.
This has more to do with how I’ve been personally feeling. I think recently, I understand more what cinema is. I understand my strengths and weaknesses better, and I’ve learned how to accept the latter and refine the former. This is a very promising situation, and it makes me work happily. It gives me confidence and room for improvement. That’s why I want to keep going on.
But of course, I face my own share of difficulties. As everyone knows, the recent situation of filmmaking in Hong Kong is not very good. When I have to adapt to a new challenging situation, I have to dispel a lot of energy into facing the immediate environment.
For example, when we made movies in the past, we spent half of our time negotiating with people, not dealing with the film itself. Half of our time was spent overcoming difficulties in the environment. And for a filmmaker, the environment is always difficult [laughs]. This isn’t even a complaint, it’s just that no one makes films smoothly. We always say we don’t have enough time or money, but even Jackie Chan says he doesn’t have enough time or money. It is a matter of mutual envy.
There’s also another problem of people choosing projects based on finances, or based on the fame of the studio or production company. I think choosing your collaborators is very important. You should choose your collaborators like how you choose your actors. You shouldn’t choose them based on stature, because they might not work well for you. You have to see whether they’re sympathetic to your project or not, whether they really want to do your project or are only in it for the returns. Their purpose might not be in line with your purpose of filmmaking. There are many purposes in filmmaking. Everyone says they only want to make a good film, but that’s not entirely true. You can sign for a big studio if you want to make money, and make sure your contract says you’ll get all the returns. You don’t have to care about the end product. But if you actually want to make your film well, you have to choose your collaborators carefully.
From the beginning to the end, you have to be very alert to what you’re doing. You can’t agree to everything others say. Don’t be like young filmmakers nowadays, who always ask, “Director Hui, you have so much experience, can you teach me how to enter the industry?” There is no industry to enter nowadays! [laughs] There is no set way to do film. You have to find your own way.
So you think you are increasingly aware of what your purpose is?
I think so. I hope so.
In the Sinosphere, you are widely recognized as one of the best filmmakers in the world. Yet, in the Anglosphere, you are not in the most famous tier of directors. Have you ever felt wronged by this unfair treatment in the Anglosphere?
Not at all! Better not! [laughs] There is only so much I can do. I don’t have time to think about how to spread or market my films. You have to work to promote yourself, or to find someone to promote yourself. I have no time or interest to do that anymore. I only want to find opportunities to make films. If promoting myself gives me a better filmmaking opportunity, I’ll do it. I separate gaining fame for fame’s sake or gaining it for better opportunities very markedly.
Well, I can assure you that many cinephiles feel bad for you, that you still can’t enter the top tier of directors in the Anglosphere.
Well I am touched by that, but I have to accept reality [laughs].
The New York Asian Film Festival is also screening one of your earliest works, The Story of Woo Viet. I remember there are many action scenes starring Chow Yun-fat in The Story of Woo Viet. And in the recent Our Time Will Come, you are still tackling action scenes. After all these years, what has changed in your approach to filming sequences like that? Are there any differences?
Maybe there aren’t, and that’s the problem. When I shot Woo Viet, I already knew I wasn’t an action director. I tried my best, and I was more receptive when I was younger, so I could do it just barely. Back then, other directors took a long time doing action, but I don’t think it’s a matter of speed. It’s a matter of touch. My reflexes are slow. I can’t tell left from right, my balance is terrible, I don’t know how to ride a bike. When you are so physically inactive, you will have problems shooting action. I think the action in both The Story of Woo Viet and Our Time Will Come is okay and passable, but not outstanding. If you are specifically seeking action cinema, don’t go to an Ann Hui film.
Last question: many of your films are about identification. Your generation’s self-identity obviously diverges from the self-identity of the Hong Kong youth nowadays. What do you think about this evolution? Are you inspired by it?
I think we should both take a step towards each other. My generation knows our identity better and should do something positive. The youth generation should take a step back and be less aggressive about their identity, because you don’t have to cram it down people’s throats. If you force others to agree with your self-identity, that’s a little too aggressive. On the other hand, my generation needs to be more aggressive.
So do you think filmmaking is your non-aggressive method of expression?
I’ve always believed that I am not 100% correct. I don’t even think my advice to be less aggressive is necessarily correct, because everyone has their own opinion.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
This article is part of Cinema Escapist‘s dedicated coverage of the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival.