Boat People is unquestionably one of the most important films in Hong Kong cinema, and yet it’s only with increasing distance that we begin to appreciate how infinitely evocative – as all great art is – this political thriller has managed to be. Centring around a Japanese photojournalist (Lam) who revisits the post-Liberation Vietnam in 1987 to document its rebirth, Hui’s film captivatingly reveals the horrors facing the people living in the port of Danang, who are sometimes sent to forced labour camps that are misguidedly labelled as ‘new economic zones’. Intriguingly, the film has for many years been seen as a foretelling of our own city’s destiny after 1997 – an interpretation not the least weakened by the Chinese authorities’ view of it as an ‘anti-communist’ work. The director herself has always denied, up to this day, the symbolic values of her work, and, watching it now in the cold light of day, it’s indeed not too farfetched for one to believe her film was simply a based-on-real-event drama intending to reveal the plight of the Vietnamese refugees, who were causing quite a stir in Hong Kong. Irrespective of the political readings it attracted, Boat People remains first and foremost a masterful drama about the survival of people, who may be possessing even less control on their lives than they thought. Its tragic sense of fatalism is haunting.
* Did you know…
… that Boat People was originally selected in competition at Cannes Film Festival? “At some point, we were asked to negotiate with the [authorities] in Paris, and were told that we couldn’t be included in the [main] competition anymore,” Hui recalls. “We were still given the status of ‘official selection’, [but were instead] presented there as the ‘film surprise’. And they told me that the preceding ‘film surprise’, which was also prevented by the government [from competing], was Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. At that point, I was so smitten I just said yes.”