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Cinema: Faraway Place

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

BOAT PEOPLE Directed by Ann Hui Screenplay by K.C. Chiu

Directors who make movies that are “ripped from today’s headlines” must tread a narrow, tortuous path. Pay attention to all the political ambiguities and you risk putting your audience to sleep; turn history into histrionics and you anger everyone with a special interest. It is to the credit of Hong Kong’s Ann Hui, the 36-year-old director of Boat People, that she has chosen the latter course. Her film is not a meticulous precis of Vietnamese politics; it is a fast-paced, humanist melodrama centering on one family that, in the chaos of reconstruction that faced the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam after the fall of Saigon in 1975, finally determines to flee the country on an agonizingly slow boat through the China Sea.

Like any movie (overtly political or not) with a strong point of view, Boat People is propaganda. Most of Vietnamese officialdom is polite but abrupt, in a hurry to build a model Marxist nation. The film’s heroes are the “misfits” who anchor their dreams in the past or launch them into the faraway future. One aging captain of the revolution, educated in France many years earlier, drowns his disappointments in French poetry and the company of a backstreets madam. A boy of about ten, godfathered by American G.I.s, has the randy strut and rancid mouth of a pint-size Richard Pryor. By 1978, the year in which the film is set, two bygone eras of colonialism could provide reason for nostalgia simply because they were past and because the present offered little but a grim struggle for survival.

These are inferences the talented Hui allows the viewer to draw; but the pace is hardly ruminative. Mostly, Boat People motors along with Kung Fu industry: visiting a “chicken farm,” where the ten-year-old and his sisters scavenge the effects of recently executed prisoners; negotiating a field laced with land mines, a legacy of the U.S. involvement; gazing unflinchingly as the children’s mother impales herself on a hook; tracing the attempt of the children and their benefactor, a Japanese photographer (Lam Chi-cheung), to bribe and fight their way to “freedom,” which here is just another word for some place else to be.

Boat People, whose scenario Hui based on eyewitness reports she received from hundreds of Vietnamese refugees, was the first Hong Kong movie to be shot in Communist China. That she made her film with the support of a regime hostile to Viet Nam raised eyebrows. And when Boat People was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and this fall at the New York Film Festival, it raised hackles on the neck of the left. The passions Boat People elicits testify not only to the bitterness of the worldwide debate between left and right but to Hui’s skills as a popular film maker. Boat People should keep informed viewers on the edge of their seats—and awake at night, pondering its remorseless implications. —By Richard Corliss

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