Hong Kong director Ann Hui joins several of her most illustrious peers as the subject of a biographical documentary, Keep Rolling. Unlike Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Johnnie To, however, she does not sing karaoke in the film. But she does tell Sylvia Chang that she wishes she had spent more of her life “drinking, singing, and dancing.” Why she didn’t is perhaps revealed in an earlier comment, when she tells an interviewer that once she was out with her fellow Hong Kong New Wave director Tsui Hark and his then-wife, the accomplished producer Nansun Shi, and couldn’t help, after a few drinks, but recite Shakespeare for them. They never wanted to go out with her again after that, Hui asserts.
Man Lim-chung’s film excels at revealing these quirks of Hui’s personality. For example, her patient caring for her nonagenarian mother on a trip somewhere (a doctor?) is deflated by the fact that Hui has absent-mindedly gotten the date wrong and the office is closed. The short scene ends with Hui and her mother (billed in the credits only as “Ann Hui’s mother”) sitting silently in a coffee shop. In another interview we see that Hui’s shirt is absolutely covered in cat hair, the fault of the clearly beloved yet imperious Figaro. Another segment chronicles Hui’s penchant for accidents: walking into walls, getting hit by cars and buses, and, in one clip, tripping and nearly crushing actress Tang Wei on the set of The Golden Era.
All this charming bumbling belies the fact that Hui is the most intellectual of her peers. She earned a Master’s Degree in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong before going to the London Film School, where her thesis was on Alain Robbe-Grillet. She’s also the most decorated: She has won the Best Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards a record six times and was the first female director to win a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival. Man is less effective at exploring just what it is that makes Hui’s films so good — admittedly a difficult task as Hui is not an expressive stylist in the mode of her more famous peers like Tsui or John Woo. Nor has she confined herself to a particular genre or subject matter. Instead, Hui has built a consistently excellent body of well-crafted, thoughtful, humane films that more often than she would like are greeted with popular indifference.
Keep Rolling is structured around Hui’s life and films, using scenes from her semi-autobiographical Song of the Exile and Starry is the Night to illustrate passages of her early life, but otherwise tracing her career film by film, explicated by several interviews with Hui as well as with her siblings, members of her crews, and many of her directorial peers. We’re treated to footage that’s been hard to find in the US, including a couple of episodes Hui did in the 1970s for the anthology TV series Beneath the Lion Rock (one starring Nansun Shi!) and clips of The Spooky Bunch, Romance of Book and Sword, and Song of the Exile that look much better than the circulating copies of those films online. Most of Hui’s mid-’80s to mid-’90s career is dismissed as a series of failures, by both Hui and the documentary, though those films, for me at least, include some of her best work: the ground-breaking wuxia Book and Sword, thorny romantic melodramas Starry is the Night and the Eileen Chang adaptation Love in a Fallen City, and maybe her best film, Song of the Exile. All of which goes to show not just that, for better or worse, what plays abroad doesn’t always play well at home, but also that the greatest films of a great director often go unrecognized in their own time, sometimes even by the director herself.
Hui tells us she’d like to be more successful, financially: how much of a struggle it is to secure financing (unlike To and Tsui, she never had the backing of her own production company, nor was she part of a studio like Golden Harvest or Cinema City), and how disappointing and frustrating it is when her films don’t work. Andy Lau, who got his start in her 1982 film Boat People, tells us how she once approached him with the goal of making a commercial film and how excited he was at the prospect. But as she rattled off movie ideas, he realized that all she wanted to make were “Ann Hui films.” Ultimately Keep Rolling gives us a portrait of a director unable to be anything but what she is.
Published as part of NYAFF 2021 — Dispatch 1.