Ordinary Heroes (1999) by Ann Hui


Winner of best film at the 9th Hong Kong Film Awards and the 36th Golden Horse Awards in Taiwan, among others, “Ordinary Heroes” has Ann Hui focusing on a different type of boat people, this time the Yau Ma Tei, people who have ended up living on their boats for various reasons. As their living conditions deteriorated in the late 1970s, a number of protests, both by them and by activists, took place, against the government’s failure to carry out rental registration for them, which made it very difficult for them to resettle on earth. One of the key figures in their struggle was Father Franco Mella, who referred cases to volunteers and social workers, increasingly involving NGOs, such as the Society of Community Organization and Kwun Tong Inquiry Service. , to the question, while helping with their education. The film focuses on both his fight and that of the activists, while showing the lives of these people.

The film begins with a street performer, inspired by the real-life character Ng Chun Yin, telling the story of communism in China and Hong Kong, among a number of other topics in his recurring appearances throughout the film. The next scene brings us to the main arc, revolving around Sow, a woman who has forgotten her past and suffers from mental issues, while being cared for by her friend, activist Lee, who is in love with her. since a pickpocketing incident. at secondary school. Eventually, it is revealed that Sow was involved with an activist, Yau, who ended up marrying someone else, as he continued, however, to defend the rights of boat people Yau Ma Tei.

Through the stories of the three, Hui also examines the problems with the wives of the boat people, mostly illegal immigrants from mainland China, who were forced to come forward in order to obtain amnesty for their children, as well as appropriate birth certificates, but found themselves deported to the mainland. At the same time, the role of father Kam, who is based on the aforementioned Franco Mella, is also highlighted, as much as how he influenced Lee, even after his mother was also part of the story.

Ann Hui directs a film that unfolds in several, sometimes intertwined tracks, which nevertheless focus on the history of activism in Hong Kong, and essentially on the almost always troubled circumstances that have dominated the region. That the accusations are directed both at the British government, which did not grant rights to the Boat People, and at the Chinese government, as the Tiananmen incident is also discussed in the film, highlights this last aspect of the most obvious way. These factors are presented both through the lives of the protagonists and the many events that have shaped their lives, but also through archival footage and the recurring performance alluded to at the start, resulting in a hybrid film that is both drama and documentary, with realism dominating the activism aspect shifting sharply to the second aspect.

This duality is perfectly represented by the cinematography of Yu Lik-wai, whose images are quite memorable on occasion, illustrating both the beauty of the region through a number of long shots and the gruesome circumstances of the boat people, through medium and close shots. Equally good is Kwong Chi-leung’s editing, which combines these different elements and the unusual narrative style in a way that ends up being quite organic.

At the same time, the romance aspect feels somewhat disconnected and excessive in melodramatic terms, essentially departing from the impact of sociopolitical commentary, even as it adds to the entertainment offered by the film. This actually emerges as one of the issues encountered throughout Hui’s career, with the emphasis on interpersonal relationships detracting from the main subject, with films like “Our Time Will Come” showcasing this. do. At the same time, that even this element works, at least to some extent, in the narrative, speaks to the directorial abilities of Hongkongers.

The acting is one of the best features of the title. Loletta Lee as Sow is exceptional in how she portrays her trauma, while her smile definitely lights up the screen every time she flashes it. Lee Kang Sheng as Lee is also excellent in the way he shows his unrequited love for Sow and his efforts to help the Boat People. However, the one who steals the show is Anthony Wong as Father Kam, portraying a rather eccentric priest who is both Catholic and Trotskyist, eager to help anyone in need while maintaining his unique mentality. The scenes where he plays the guitar, his interactions with Lee’s mother, and the calm he shows under all circumstances testify to his performance.

“Ordinary Heroes” may go a little overboard in its romantic and familial aspects, but as a political film it fully succeeds, while emphasizing Hui’s unique yet eloquent approach to his subjects.

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