While Song of the Exile is probably Ann Hui’s best known film, there is a growing consensus that her more recent work is her best. The Way We Are, made in 2008, is set in Hong Kong’s ‘City of Sorrow’, Tin Shui Wai, a public housing estate known for its high levels of unemployment and associated problems (see here for an SCMP report on the area’s high suicide rates as an example.) As we’d expect from someone who emerged from Hong Kong’s New Wave, Hui’s social conscience and concern for the dispossessed strongly inform her film; but her stories tend to eschew outright despair, and in this case we see a wholly charming evocation of the strength of a family’s love and unity despite less than ideal living circumstances. More, we see how that love extends out into a whole community. It’s a totally successful , satisfying film; when Huang Yaoshi, reviewing this film, calls Hui ‘the most gifted storyteller in Hong Kong’, it’s hard to disagree. Certainly, in her refusal to churn out genre pieces or to compromise the pace or subject matter she prefers, she’s one of the most independently-minded filmmakers currently working in Hong Kong.
The story centres around Mrs Cheung and her teenage son, On, who live together in a tiny, and very typically Hong Kong, apartment. Mrs Cheung cuts and packs durian at the local supermarket; On is spending the summer lounging at home while he waits for the results of his school exams to see whether he will be continuing with his education or not. The opening shots put us inside this apartment, looking out at Tin Shui Wai. The image is polysemic; the buildings look grim, partly because of the apparent lack of deliberate composition. However, the light and colour (typically of Hui) is beautiful. This ambiguity continues throughout the film and, eventually, becomes the point of the film. While we may pity these people for their poverty and their apparently tedious lives, they are not feeling sorry for themselves; they are just living their lives. To them, Tin Shui Wai is not ‘the city of sorrow’, but simply the place where they live.
The film is basically in the realist tradition. Perhaps inspired by the Italian neo-realists – certainly, the subject matter and the ideologies are similar – we have real sets, little in the way of artificial light or sound and what looks and sounds like ad-libbed acting. Likewise, the narrative echoes real life in that there is no strong sense of narrative causation. As movie-goers, we’re used to the feeling of watching a story being set up and constructed; we know that nothing happens in a movie’s narrative unless it advances the main plot in some way. When that causation is removed (as it is in life,where stuff happens all the time for no particular reason) it can leave the story feeling unplanned and directionless. The Way We Are needs to be approached in this light, as something that is seeking to shine a light on an aspect of life rather than to entertain an audience with a clever narrative. Yaoshi explains this, showing it as both a strength and a possible weakness, saying, ‘the films of Ann Hui are those who directly go to the core of what Hong Kong is about – but this core is as most of our lives perhaps unspectacular, mundane, and banal.’
The most obvious result of this is that nothing happens as we expect it, because our previous movie-watching experience comes between us and the film. For example, when On finally ventures out of the flat to go and see some ‘friends’, we expect him to be up to no good, especially when we see the long-haired young men he’s going to see.
And yet all they do is play mahjong (echoing a scene in which the elder characters did the same – the sense of community and continuity between the generations is very strong in this film.) They have a conversation about religion. Mostly, they ignore each other, as teenage boys do. The point is, of course, that the viewer’s expectations of this ‘type’ of person and of film itself, is wrong.
Likewise, we look for the ‘bad guys’ in the story because it feels wrongly weighted without them. Someone must be to blame for the tedium of these people’s lives! When we realise it’s not going to be On or any of his friends, attention turns to Big Uncle, Mrs Cheung’s brother. On’s cousins, returned to visit from America, bring a little colour and glamour into the film.
We immediately start constructing oppositions in our minds; they are rich and On is poor, so they are bad and On is good. Particularly when we find out about how Mrs Cheung worked to put her brothers through University, we seem to have our bad guys. But of course, it doesn’t work out like that. There are no bad guys in this world; everyone is nice, in an undemonstrative everyday sort of way.
Which is not to say there is no narrative. An older lady meets Mrs Cheung but seems determined to refuse any offers of kindness or friendship. The story’s interest comes in part from the way she changes and opens up to others, as well as revealing something about her own past. But really, it’s an observational piece about the absolutely normal lives of these very normal people, and it’s a quietly celebratory film about family and community, as well as a film which subtly changes audience attitudes. While we watch them proceed with their lives, we make judgements about their surroundings or lives; but they are free of self pity and just continue with life. We’re at fault, not them. Perry Lam wrote that it’s ‘a great film in a small way and, in its tribute to the resilience of life, serves as an apt, shining metaphor for the filmmaking career of Hui herself.’ It is perhaps Ann Hui’s best film, which is saying a lot.