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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Bloom from a Late Spring

Ann Hui realises a long-cherished project

By Stuart Whitmore


HONG KONG DIRECTOR ANN Hui On-wah excels at making small, carefully crafted films about the ups and downs of ordinary life. And that's her main problem. Local audiences used to a steady diet of ultra-violent action flicks and inane, exploitative comedies, often fail to notice the director's character-driven pieces.

Hui had a critical and commercial breakthrough in 1982 with Boat People, a gritty tale about a group of refugees trying to flee an oppressive Vietnam. But success with Boat People did not mark a period of smooth sailing for Hui, perhaps Hong Kong's most important woman director. Producers scuppered her plan to follow that with an adaptation of 18 Springs, a novel by popular writer Eileen Chang Ai-ling set in pre-war Shanghai.

It would have meant filming in the mainland, and the money men weren't prepared to take a chance. At the time, relations across the Taiwan Strait were such that movies shot in China ran the risk of being banned in the island's lucrative market.

Despite a Hong Kong movie industry in the doldrums and an audience's appetite for cheap thrills, Hui has insisted on making films that would not compromise her creative vision. The results have been mixed. Sometimes they flopped both with reviewers and at the box office. Though Hui's integrity drew a core of admirers, more than 10 years were to pass before she was able to silence her detractors. In 1995, she released Summer Snow -- a moving yet comic tale of a woman trying to cope with her father-in-law's worsening Alzheimer's disease. Not only was the movie a domestic hit, it was also honored at film festivals from Taipei to Berlin. Ann Hui retrospectives started to pop up on the international art-house circuit.

Suddenly the 50-year-old Hui became bankable. With this new-found leverage -- and the interest generated when novelist Chang died two years ago -- Hui was finally able to raise the financing to complete 18 Springs. A tale about star-crossed young lovers in turbulent pre-war China, it could easily have turned into an overblown period piece. Instead, the story is told through regular folk struggling to deal with the vagaries of an uncertain world. In short, it is the kind of project that Hui finds satisfying.

The story begins in 1930s Shanghai. Shen Shijun (Canto-pop idol Leon Lai Ming) and Gu Manzhen (Taiwan actress Wu Chien-lien) find work at the same newspaper plant and fall in love as soon as they meet. But, in a plot that is part Shakespearean tragedy, part Chinese melodrama, self-serving relatives and fickle fate conspire to keep the young lovers apart.

Shy and homely Shijun comes from a wealthy, traditional family, but is determined to make it on his own rather than rely on his inheritance. Manzhen has no such choice. She was orphaned as a child and raised by elder sister Manlu (Anita Mui Yim-fong), who is forced to work as a high-class prostitute to keep the two of them fed and clothed.

The job wrecked Manlu's relationship with a former flame, and it has the same effect on her younger sister's romance. Although he loves Manzhen, Shijun is unable to get over the gulf in their backgrounds -- especially when he finds out that his father knew her sister as a courtesan. There are other forces pulling them apart: first Manzhen's elderly relatives and then her sister foment ambitious plans for her future.

It is around the characters' subtle exchanges and little actions that Hui orchestrates the drama. As the older sister, Mui shimmers against the drab settings in her bright silks, by turns self-sacrificing, then coldly calculating. Mainland star Ge You seethes with greasy menace as Manlu's husband Zhu Hongcai, who has sexual designs on his young sister-in-law.

Lai and Wu are also well cast as the lovers Manzhen and Shijun. The couple's tentative efforts to express their feelings evoke the innocence of a bygone era -- their first attempts to hold hands are as clumsy and awkward as the most gawky teenagers'. Later, Shijun's impending trip back to his hometown in Nanjing gives Manzhen the chance to fuss over him. She shows up at his room with a home-made sweater and food for his journey, and then proceeds to set his alarm clock for him and offer tips on packing.

Running parallel to this romance is another love story -- that of Shijun's best friend Xu Shuhui (Wang Lei). He falls for Shi Cuizhi (Annie Wu) whom his friend's parents are eyeing as a suitable bride for their son. But Shuhui feels he is an unworthy match for the well-to-do Cuizhi, and his studious effort to ignore her presence, even when they are alone in a boat out on an empty lake, is one of the most delicate scenes in the film.

All the melodramatic clichés (including a waylaid letter) find their way into the movie. But director Hui keeps the tale firmly grounded with everyday details. The thoroughly believable characters take their tragedies on the chin and get on with lives that are as ordinary as everyone else's -- and just as extraordinary.


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