Hong Kong, 1980. The Vietnam War has been over for five years and the ethnic cleansing of Chinese has begun. As the “boat people”, refugees of Vietnam, flood out of the country, Hong Kong becomes know as “port of first asylum”. Among these boats is Wu Yiet (Chow Yun-Fat), a former South Vietnamese soldier still recovering from the ravages of war. For him, Hong Kong is the first step for life in the United States, and he soon falls for fellow immigrant Sum Ching (Cherie Chung). Yet the promise of a new beginning doesn’t come easy: the refugee camps have been infiltrated by murderous Viet Cong agents, and an act of violence forces Wu Yiet on the run and deeper into a vortex of crime and brutality. Can he and Sum make it to the United States, or will he forever be stuck in the perpetual cycle of killing inherited from the war? Cora Miao (The Terrorizers) and Lo Lieh (all sorts of bad-assery) co-star in Ann Hui’s grim study of immigrant life. Alfred Cheung’s writing famously won Best Screenplay at the 1st Hong Kong Film Awards.
After tackling the mystery film in The Secret and the horror comedy in The Spooky Bunch, The Story of Woo Viet provides us with Ann Hui’s take on the urban crime drama. Yet, even among the various gritty, realist crime dramas that trickled out of the Hong Kong New Wave, Woo Viet deserves special notice. Perhaps more than any other, Hui’s film breaks with the commercial ambitions of Hong Kong cinema, more attuned to the social-realism of 70s Western cinema (and which was slowly creeping into Chinese and Taiwanese films at the time). While the basic outline of a genre film is perceptible, Hui’s film owes very little to the Action and Melodramatic tradition of HK filmmaking. Films like The Club and Man on the Brink may have provided a look at a social milieu until then ignored by HK cinema, but they were still in essence action films. A movie like Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind may have been uncommercially bleak and violent, but you can’t deny the kinetic thrill provided by Tsui Hark’s various setpieces. The entire New Wave itself was initiated by a kung-fu film: Jumping Ash. The “action” here isn’t mannered or precisely choreagraphed; they’re brief and unsettling bursts of violence which happen too quickly and too shockingly to thrill.
The influence of the crime genre isn’t absent: the theme music purposely brings to mind film noir, a late scene is a riff on one from The Godfather, and in certain ways, it echoes Oliver Stones’ treatment of Cuban refugees in Scarface (and with the film getting a wider release than usual, including a screening at Directors’ Fortnight, you must wonder whether he saw it). Yet, Hui’s focus isn’t on subverting genre thrills, but instead on social realism, on the plight and vulnerability of the Vietnamese immigrant, as well as the capturing the psychological turmoil of her characters as they find themselves stuck in a perpetual cycle of violence and hopelessness. Her film is subdued, mininimalist and quietly intense, in line with anguished cries of urban squalor like Taxi Driver and The Claws of Light (if not as good as either).
It’s a byline she would carry to its conclusion with the following year’s The Boat People, a film which owes nothing to HK Genre cinema, and which is about as close as the industry got to “art” cinema at the time. In fact, that may ultimately be Hui’s ultimate legacy to the New Wave: directors like Tsui Hark, Kirk Wong and Alex Cheung were harbingers (and later participants) of the “Second Wave” of the latter 80s, where the techniques and styles of the New Wave were re-appropriated in a completely commercial form which disregarded its most radical aspects. Yet Ann Hui, along with Patrick Tam and Allen Fong, were perhaps too far ahead of the curve: their films point towards the “Third Wave” of the 90s, the emergence of a serious, personal and independent cinema in HK, epitomized by the films of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan and Fruit Chan. It’s no surprise that after these two films, she would retreat to more commercial fare, lending her deft touch to romantic dramas and period pieces (with the occasional excursion back like Song of the Exile and Ordinary Heroes). The Story of Woo Viet isn’t a perfect film, but it is an emblem of how uncompromising and unconventional the films of the HK New Wave could be.
2.13GB | 1 h 29 min | 1024×576 | mkv