BOAT PEOPLE (Ann Hui, 1982)

Ann Hui has stated she did not intend Tau ban no hoi, about Vietnam under Communist rule, as anti-Communist propaganda, and I see no reason to dispute her claim. A stunning view of war’s aftermath, it portrays poverty as an abiding crisis for the Vietnam people no matter who is in charge. (We see children, for instance, scavenging garbage for food.) The title of the film literally translates as Into the Raging Sea, and we glean in its inexact U.S. title, Boat People, an attempt to politicize its humane and harrowing content. Those with their own axe to grind are capable of wringing a political statement out of anything.
     The protagonist, Japanese photojournalist Shiomi Akutagawa, fictionally blends two actual reporters. He has returned to Danang a few years after the fall of Saigon to check progress in the unified Vietnam. His “outside” view of things blends subjectivity and objectivity; perhaps with annoyance, we note his intrusiveness. We see what he sees (in both senses) as he sees it. Thus the scene of Vietnamese girls cheerfully singing praises of Ho Chi Minh in a “New Economic Zone” reflects his misunderstanding of their circumstance; they and their families are prisoners in a Soviet-style labor camp. The children are performing as they have been coached to perform. Gradually Akutagawa penetrates appearances and becomes personally involved with a Vietnamese family, whom he tries helping to a positive fate.
     Hui has said she is dissatisfied with the film’s “style” but still cannot imagine a better one for the film. The detailed documentary realism that she brings to the social and communal tragedy suits the material; it is an extension of what Akutagawa—her surrogate as well as ours—is after.
     Hong Kong Film Awards: best film, direction, screenplay (Dai An-Ping).

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