Below The Lion Rock: Director Ann Hui Series (1978-1992)



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The RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) produced and hugely popular Below The Lion Rock series continues its individual and box set releases with a theme and the turn and spotlight has come to another forerunner of the late 70s/early 80s new wave of socially relevant cinema. Ann Hui is not a character on the scene this feeble Westerner can thoroughly dissect to discuss the why's and how's of her cinematic choices. I just watch it, you know? True and clear though is that Ann Hui on many occasions (and during some great moments called Summer Snow) offers up quiet, even stale cinematic tapestry with anger attached to it. The social commentator if you will, anger is not of the 100 decibel kind but kept within the atmos of a certain film. Take The Story Of Woo Viet (starring Chow Yun-Fat) that definitely wore (effectively I might add) its anger on its sleeve. Speaking of that film, it all connects to the glimpses of life Below The Lion Rock offered up, highlighting the backsides of society, the common and the historically crucial. Ann Hui also started to tread the Vietnam-theme of her stories in the short From Vietnam that is included in this set but knowing little else of her story-desire when working in TV, the set at hand gives viewers a chance to start very early in a filmmaker's life.

This 2 disc box set contains 4 short films Ann Hui directed for Below The Lion Rock:

Road (1978)
Starring: Gigi Wong, Carol Cheng & Ida Chan

As Ann Hui discusses during her intro, there was little pressure put on these new filmmakers to adhere to a style set in place by RTHK. What needed to ring true however was the creating of something people could relate to. A Public Service Announcement if you will. In that regard, Road merely has that latter effect but enough basic effect to warrant a look for fans of the director. Creating intersecting stories of drug addiction, a quite effective stylistic choice during the beginning of these stories are about fading out before all is made clear. We can't catch enough glimpses to understand if old lady Fong is in an elderly home and all forgotten and same with the story of young Siu-Lai (Ida Chan). Shooting very straightforward and amidst reality (a criminally simplistic, effective choice), Hui travels around the surrounding characters, starting with the social worker Lee (Gigi Wong) finding out Fong's daughter Chui (Carol Cheng) is carrying an opium addiction as well. Siu-Lai's reality is that her parents can't afford a living and she's sent out to be a club hostess. The expected part of being abused sexually within this profession doesn't rear its head but rather the drug addiction that comes with it. That's not the reality Siu-Lai's parents wanted but perhaps her looking for love and being denied it by the parents spurs a decision to rebel. It's a road towards tragedy indeed and the short maintains a good focus on being part of a series but the short narrative really isn't at all times suited for this dual story. Ticking off content and indeed being preachy (although Hui does her very best at making the story naturally progressing), at least final sentiments works so well BECAUSE it's part of Below The Lion Rock. Roads have different turns you can take. You've got to think of the common ones attending this screening, not just advanced film buffs.

Bridge (1978)
Starring: Timothy Wilson, Cheung Yin, Shirley Wong & Shi Nan-Sun

During the intro, Media Specialist Peter Lam speaks specifically of Allen Fong's Ode To Un Chau Chai as having an actual impact on the government, leading to better treatment for the immigrant boat people and impact is part of Hui's Bridge. Set up as more of a documentary-drama, at the forefront is Western journalist John (Timothy Wilson, a member of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra) who passionately follows the case of the closing of a bridge many poor villagers not setup in public housing are dependent on. Hui has Wilson break the fiction frame early on and all throughout she dips into this esthetic, almost playing the role of documentary crew following the events. This has the desired effect of enlightening the TV-audiences and she's clearly not being unclear about the different opinions on display here. In particular the issue of electricity that the bridge provides but the illegal angle of it too as village characters charge their fellow man for power. Also the protesters are seen upon as people refusing to take the step to apply for public housing but the opinions obviously differ. Who's the more constructive? People or government? By throwing us back and forth like rag dolls, there's not much drama effect to Bridge and the ropey acting by the Westerners further drag down the impact of the issues at hand. Fine instincts and probably a good watch for its local audiences, Hui is seen here in territory she's trying out to see what works for her and not. That's ok as she's not clueless as such.

From Vietnam (1978)
Starring: Lee Kwok-Cheung & Leung Kit-Fong

Director Of Broadcasting Chu Pui-Hing speaks during this particular intro about what types of stories came out of Below The Lion Rock, what creative freedom was bestowed upon the directors and what profiles the series gave birth to. From Vietnam started what was to become a kind of Vietnam-trilogy for Ann Hui. Continued in The Story of Woo Viet and Boat People, especially the former was downbeat gold while this TV short has its moments merely. Detailing the events before coming to Hong Kong from Vietnam and during his stay, teenager Ah Man begins immersing himself into Hong Kong life but carries with him hatred. Hatred for foreigners and with a uncertain future looming, anything can swallow him up it seems. But this applies to his sole contacts in Hong Kong as well: cousin Johnny and painter Chan Zhong, both of which are refugees. Hui speaks of having run away and how you now want dreams to come true. However firmly you stand together though, life just deals you the poorest hand during this time. You may have run but it's either that you treat life ambitions with low expectations or you can expect to perish anytime. Issues are very much easy to relate to and the harsh effect a recognizable aspect that was later much better utilized in the bleak The Story Of Woo Viet so again, the TV work is training ground and not fully realized stories. The fact that Ann Hui is well on her way at this point is assuring however. Watch out for a young Alfred Cheung in a cameo and he would go on to write the eventual award winning script of Hui's The Story of Woo Viet.

Where Are You Going? (1992)
Starring: Hou Dejian, Kim Shi-Kit & Chao Chi-Keung

Producer of Below The Lion Rock and former director of broadcasting Cheung Man-Yee gives us an insight in the shift of focus between the early and latter days of the series before the last short arrives. As this last selection presents this Westerner on the outside looking in troubles in regards to reviewing, the summary of this docu-drama is best quoted from the dvd case:

"Mainland Chinese see him as "Taiwanese", but the Taiwanese regard him as "Chinese". Born in Taiwan, he returned to the Chinese mainland to find his roots, and his hugely popular patriotic song "Descendants of the Dragon" made him the toast of his mainland compatriots. He is the renowned singer-songwriter Hou Dejian.

Director Ann Hui examines this public figure who, as a result of saying he "didn't see anyone get killed" during the events at Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, became the subject of immense controversy. The film includes interviews with activist leaders Zhou Tuo and Liu Xiaobo, who were there with Hou at the time, as well as sequences featuring the subject himself, giving his own version of how he stood firm and compromised against the pressure exerted on him by the Chinese government. Subsequently, he chose "deportation back to Taiwan", where he was condemned by the public. In the end, where can he find refuge?"

Not being familiar with Huo or the grave details about June 4th, Where Are You Going? is very much a local production or rather for those who sits on more information. Sure research is your best friend but Ann Hui's job as a documentary filmmaker is to provide even new viewers with insight. Through archival footage and contemporary interviews, not all is made clear to me but one issue definitely is. That of media manipulation where you can't afford to be anything but perfectly concrete and clear with them as well as the Chinese government views on free speech, leading to the staged sequences with Huo Dejian. Feeling rather corny after enough of good material in documentary-form prior, the dramatization still touches upon the points I got out of Where Are You Going? but one still wishes a more glossy, full on piece had been done. As it stands now, it portrays a spiral that is interesting but I'm personally, currently left out of its finer points.

Still, Below The Lion Rock and its focus on Ann Hui is in many ways fascinating for the fans, even those like me that sees the uneven nature of her filmography to date. Not the smoothest social commentator always, as also evident throughout the shorts, Ann Hui has a distinct way of dealing with reality that translates on-screen. Out to global viewers even and the fact that she was in development towards logging solid gold feature filmmaking already makes a visit to the atmosphere of Below The Lion Rock very much a worthwhile thing for devotees.

The DVD:

IVL presents all shorts in their original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Featuring faded colours, grain and mild print damage, what we're seeing are perfectly serviceable tape masters that are even aided a little bit by being non-remastered. It gives it a feel of the period and the feel of the series. Where Are You Going? was shot on video and looks equally serviceable.

All shorts come with a sole Dolby Digital 2.0 selection and a variety of languages being used. Road is solely Cantonese while Bridge is a mixture of Cantonese and English. From Vietnam utilizes Cantonese and Vietnamese while finally Where Are You Going? comes with Mandarin. All presented the way they're intended and aside from slight cracks in the soundtracks, there are no problems with the sound.

The English subtitles read well and presents no distracting issues. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also available. Where Are You Going? only offers English and traditional Chinese (as separate menu selections)

(discussion between Ann Hui & Gigi Wong)

Both discs carry the same supplements, starting with a RTHK promo spot that precedes the main menu. Next is a program entitled Interview: When Gigi Wong Meets Ann Hui (running 14 minutes, 26 seconds and featuring the same subtitle options as the short films). An actress seen in Road and also as Mrs. Sherwood in An Autumn's Tale, Wong and Hui go over the famous image of Wong's in need to be tweaked for their collaboration, their initial meeting, what resources RTHK could pull together to create realism on the show and their thoughts on the dvd/vcd release of Below The Lion Rock. Light and breezy even when Wong questions why she wasn't directed by Hui like she expected, the chat isn't in-depth but is a nice trip down memory lane.

Director's Talk: Ann Hui (11 minutes, 39 seconds and also subtitled) has her talk about the demands of TV-stations like TVB and RTHK being very similar and that that they placed a demand on you to put in time during research process. Hui admits she still works at times after that model today and the fairly interesting program also has specific notes on the creation of Where Are You Going? and From Vietnam. Hui's final thoughts are amusing as she tells us during serious dramatic filmmaking herself and crew are at their most disorganized.

Cover Gallery showcases the top 10 entries in the cover art competition arranged in preparation for the release of Below The Lion Rock on dvd. These are often in tune works and refreshingly varied styles were selected in the end. Each entry is also accompanied by Chinese text. On the physical cover and in the menus, we also get clearer renditions of art for Road and From Vietnam.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson