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March 16, 2012

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65-year-old female director still sharply focused

PROMINENT Hong Kong director Ann Hui is best known for her sensitive but unadorned portrayals of ordinary people and their seemingly simple lives. With no melodramatic scenes or complicated plots, she tells moving tales of the joys and sorrows, life and death of Hong Kong residents.

That sensitivity, simplicity and stirring realism are evident in her recent film "A Simple Life," which hit cinemas last Thursday on the Chinese mainland.

Based on a true story of screenwriter Roger Lee and his late servant, the film tells about the touching relationship between a young master, Roger, and his elderly servant, Sister Peach, who raised him and served his family for six decades.

When Sister Peach suffers a stroke and can no longer work for the family, Roger sent her to a nursing home. During the many visits he realized that Sister Peach means more than a servant to him.

Hong Kong actress Deanie Ip plays the role of Sister Peach, while the young master Roger is portrayed by actor Andy Lau, who made his big-screen debut in Hui's work 30 years ago.

"The story can't be any better," Hui told reporters in Shanghai last Tuesday during a film promotion along with Lau and Ip. "This kind of master-servant relationship doesn't exist any more. For me, it's both retrospective and personal," she said, adding that her family used to have such a faithful servant.

"The relationship keeps changing, from distant to close, from a master-servant relationship to family affection," Hui explained. The film also depicts the value clash between two generations, and the current problems faced by Hong Kong senior citizens. Problems of the elderly is not a popular film topic in Hong Kong.

Hui once said that she felt close to the story the first time she read the script. "I am both Roger and Sister Peach," she said. Still single at the age of 65, she lives with her 80-year-old mother in a rented apartment, living like a senior and spending most of her spare time at home.

With a mushroom haircut, a pair of specs and a well-tailored white shirt, she sits cross-legged, talking candidly with reporters and laughing a lot.

"If I weren't a director, designer would be fun," she laughed.

"She smokes a lot, like a man, never accepts the title of superwoman. She joked that she had driving phobia, that her head whirled when seeing a computer. She said she was shy, having nothing to say to others if not making films," Hong Kong TV host Xu Gehui once said of her.

Speaking to reporters about aging and her latest film, she said, "A dozen years ago I realized I'm getting old, and I started to panic, afraid of losing the ability to take care of myself, and my dignity," - that's how Sister Peach feels when she moves into a nursing home. "It's cruel to get old. Suddenly you need help everywhere, even taking a walk."

But thanks to the film, she now "feels relieved." To make the film, Hui and the shooting crew spent 15 days working in a nursing home. Some of the residents there even appear in a few scenes.

"After seeing their life, I figure it's no big deal to ask for help, and I could accept it. Once overcoming the panic, I can deal with my aging in a much better way."

The film unfolds in such a plain and detailed way, as if in a documentary, that Hui couldn't tell which scenes were most dramatic. "That's the most difficult part because each separate scene doesn't have much to tell without context. I can only know the effect after editing," she said.

At the end of the film, Sister Peach passes away when Roger is on a business trip. One of the questions Hui was frequently asked by reporters is why Roger couldn't hold Sister Peach's hand and say goodbye in her final moments. Her answer is simple: "It's more like real life."

"In real life, there's not much chance to say goodbye, or hold each other's hands and say 'Enjoy your life'," she laughed. "That appears more often in drama, doesn't it?"

After screening in Hong Kong last year, the film was well received. Ip was honored with the Volpi Cup for Best Actress for her role as Sister Peach at the 68th Venice International Film Festival. At last year's Taiwan Golden Horse Awards, the film swept the awards for Best Director, Best Leading Actor and Best Leading Actress, leaving the director laughing on the stage with excitement: "I think I was nearly having a stroke!"

At this year's Hong Kong Film Directors' Guild Awards, "A Simple Life" was selected as the Most Recommended Film of the Year. Hui was honored the Most Outstanding Director of the Year and given a Special Honor Award. The film has been nominated in eight categories for the upcoming Hong Kong Film Awards in April.

Early life

Born in Anshan, Liaoning Province in 1947, Hui moved to Macau with her parents and settled in Hong Kong at the age of five. Her father was a Kuomingtang secretary, and her mother was Japanese, which Hui did not know until she was 15.

Before that she always thought her mother was a southeast Chinese woman of few words, who spoke poor Cantonese and probably had little schooling. Mother and daughter weren't close at that time. She later made her mother's experience into a semi-autobiographical film, "Song of Exile."

After finishing her studies in English language and literature and comparative literature at Hong Kong University in 1972, Hui went to the London International Film School. Three years later she returned to Hong Kong and became a director in TVB, one of the major television broadcasting networks. During that period, she made many TV serials and documentaries.

She said her most satisfying work was a half-hour documentary featuring Nepalese rituals and she likes making films about ghost.

"At that time, Hong Kong still had many yizhuang (public morgue where bodies were kept before burial) and the guards yelled every day in front of the gate, 'Come and go home.' That was creepy and fascinating," she recalled, laughing.

Inspired by Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and her affection for ghosts, Hui made her first feature thriller "The Secret" in 1979. It was praised as Hong Kong's first film that consciously discusses the storytelling pattern of movies.

She later made the famed "Vietnam Trilogy" (1978-82), arousing wide attention in Hong Kong. The second piece "Boat People" won five awards including the Best Film and Best Director in the second Hong Kong Film Awards in 1983 year.

'New Wave' director

Hui was described as a representative of the "Hong Kong New Wave (1970-80)," an epoch in filmmaking when Hong Kong directors broadened their vision and tended to focus on social and cultural topics, family and relationships.

Later on, she tried various filming styles, including martial art films, adaptation of Eileen Chang's works, suspense and thrillers. Her current favorite is art film, with a documentary touch.

Today, some "New Wave" directors have given up and some returned to the mainstream of action and comedy, Hui is one of few who sticks to art film and has rooted her work in the hectic pace of densely packed Hong Kong.

Starting from her 1995 film "Summer Snow," Hui has made a series of works featuring the turbulent lives of Hong Kong women. Media called her a director with an excellent understanding of women. She shrugs off the compliment, calling it "a coincidence."

"I never meant to focus on women on purpose. It just happened that those scripts were accepted by investors," she told reporters, noting she likes various kinds of stories, as long as they "touched" her.

Investment and box-office seem unavoidable problems for art film directors. It's worse for Hui whose works are restrained and don't have tear-jerker plots and thrilling visual effects. She basically has to find financing herself for every film.

When "Song of Exile" (touching on her Japanese mother's experience) was screened in Hong Kong in 1990, a Hong Kong director joked that no one wants to watch the story about a fat, old woman.

Her award-winning 1999 work "Ordinary Heroes" is a love story with a political touch, looking at the how local intellectuals challenge the elites and struggle to make their own voices heard. However, the audience didn't really buy it. She described it as "a total loss."

That was a big blow for Hui and her career suffered a downturn for nearly 10 years, until 2008. She once again won the Best Director of Hong Kong Film Awards for the work "The Way We Are."

The film captures the daily life of a mother and son in Tin Shui Wai, a residential complex in Hong Kong's New Territories, which mostly accommodates migrants from the Chinese mainland. It was once called a "city of sadness" by media.

"That film rebuilt my confidence in film and the world," Hui said in a recent television interview.

In fact, she originally planned to make a documentary of Tin Shui Wai, after she was inspired by several shocking cases of domestic violence and suicides there.

"Contrary to the spacious exterior, it is very narrow inside the buildings. Turn around, you may bump into someone; open the door, and the bed is right there," Hui recalled. "I could feel something evil in there."

However, she had to shelve the idea for lack of financing, and tried to feature the complex in a less melodramatic way. After the success of "The Way We Are," she finally had a chance to make the dark film she wanted, "Night and Fog" (2009).

"I feel a little regret that I failed to capture the feeling of suppression in that cramped space," she said.

For "A Simple Life," Andy Lau invested HK$12 million (US$1.55 million) once Hui turned to him for help. According to the producer Bona Film Group, the box-office on the Chinese mainland reached 36 million yuan (US$5.68 million) in the first four days of screening.

Box-office is not everything. "What matters is to bring out the information and move the audience the way I once was able to," she said.

Hui doesn't give much thought to prizes, because "what the audience watches is the film, not an award-winning work.

"Sometimes I will lose too, (blinded) by my self-complacence, pride and arrogance?" She said with candor.

"I'm now over 60 and I don't have many scruples. I can do whatever I want, because I have nothing to lose," she claimed, showing no intention to retire. "I just hope to stay healthy so that I can make more works in the future."


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