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At 74, acclaimed Chinese director Ann Hui talks with NewsChina about her latest film Love After Love, her third based on the works of author Eileen Chang, as well as choosing projects and facing her critics

By Xu Pengyuan Updated Feb.1

Even to a top Chinese filmmaker, adapting the work of writer Eileen Chang is almost “mission impossible.” Among most influential and internationally acclaimed writers in Chinese modern literature, Chang is celebrated for her uniquely witty writing style, shrewd observations on love, relationship and gender issues, and mastery of delineating the subtlety and depth of human psychology.  

“Eileen Chang’s works are almost unfilmable. Her extraordinary verbal virtuosity makes the adaptation a trap for any filmmaker,” said Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien during a speech at Hong Kong Baptist University in November 2007.  

He had declined an opportunity to adapt Chang’s classic novella Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier. “I refused it just because that was beyond my ability. To visualize the sinuous, delicate and recondite world Chang created was almost mission impossible for me,” Hou added.  

Fourteen years later, Ann Hui took up the challenge. This is the 74-year-old director’s third film adapted from Eileen Chang’s works after Love in a Fallen City (1984) and Eighteen Springs (1997).  

Released on October 22, Love After Love narrates the downfall of Ge Weilong (played by Ma Sichun), a young student from Shanghai who arrives in Hong Kong in the 1930s but gets wrapped up in high society and falls into a relationship with the philandering Qiao Qiqiao. The film’s screenplay was written by Shanghai author Wang Anyi and scored by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (The Last Emperor).  

A six-time winner of Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards and a three-time Best Director recipient at the Golden Horse Awards, Hui is the most accomplished female director in Chinese cinema. Love After Love is her first film after winning the prestigious Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the 77th Venice International Film Festival in 2020.  

After its general release, however, she faced a wave of criticism.  

Degree of Separation 
Though they never met face-to-face, Hui had felt a connection with Chang since childhood.  

In 1939, then-18-year-old Chang left Shanghai to study English literature at the University of Hong Kong. Her schooling, however, came to a halt in 1942 after the outbreak of the Pacific War during World War II.  

She returned to Shanghai and started her career as a professional writer. In 1943, Chang astonished Shanghai’s literary world with her debut, the novella Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier. Readers were amazed by the young writer’s exceptional wit, shrewd observations, and her unique modernist style.  

In 1952, Chang moved to Hong Kong, where she worked as a writer and translator for the United States Information Agency, a department engaged in foreign affairs. That year, Hui was 5 years old, and had just moved to Hong Kong from Macao with her family.  

Hui’s family lived in North Point, the northeastern part of Hong Kong Island. Because many Shanghainese moved to North Point after World War II, the area was nicknamed “Little Shanghai.”  

It was at a photo studio in North Point that Chang took her most iconic portrait: Dressed in a high-collared qipao, Chang wears an unyielding expression, her right hand on her hip.  

While in primary school, Hui befriended a classmate whose mother made a deep impression on her: She was an extraordinarily elegant Shanghainese woman who always wore exquisite qipao and walked with a parasol. Hui later learned that the woman was Mae Fong Soong. She and her husband, Stephen Soong, were Chang’s best friends. They became executors of her estate after she passed away in Los Angeles in 1995.  

Like Chang, Hui studied literature at the University of Hong Kong. There she began reading Chang’s works. Hui read Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier in 1978 in Hong Kong after returning from a two-year post-graduate program at the London Film School.  

While reading The First Brazier, Hui was deeply impressed by Chang’s exceptional ability to weave images, colors and senses with words. “As I read her prose, I felt like I could picture the scenes in my mind immediately. They were so vivid and iridescent. I think it is the most colorful story that Chang ever wrote,” Hui told NewsChina.  

According to Xu Zidong, a Chang scholar at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, The First Brazier is the most cinematic of her works. “It has story, romance, depth and is popular,” he told NewsChina.  

“Chang intentionally adopted cinematic approaches in writing this story. It features lots of montages, sensuous depictions and blurred narrative perspectives, which creates a distancing effect,” Xu said.  

Ann Hui

Then Came the Haters
When adapting the novella decades later, Hui relied heavily on her personal understanding and interpretation. In Love After Love, the director avoided showing too much of heroine Weilong’s calculating character. In the last half-hour of the 133-minute film, Hui and screenplay writer Wang Anyi focus on the marriage between Weilong and Qiqiao, which is not in the original work. They also created plots about Qiqiao’s complicated relationship with his father, to make the character, portrayed as a shameless womanizer in the book, more vulnerable and worthy of compassion.  

However, these changes were not well received. On Douban, China’s leading media review website, the film received 5.4/10. Many viewers criticized the film for poor casting and failing to grasp the spirit of the original work.  

“This is not Eileen Chang’s The First Brazier. The film bears some semblance to the original, but its narrative is too simple and straightforward, losing the nuance, ambiguity and profundity of the original work,” Douban user “Lelia” commented.  

“Eileen Chang’s debut is telling a Madame Bovary sort of story in colonial Hong Kong. She mercilessly unveils the women’s vanity, naivety and self-objectification to her readers, forcing them to consider the bleak fate of women. It’s a high-class way of writing... But sadly, the story was retold by Ann Hui in a rather shallow and uninteresting way,” wrote another Douban user “Joebacktolife.”  

This was not the first time Hui faced questions about her adaptation choices. Doubts concerning whether Hui is suited to tell Chang’s stories were raised over the years.  

The 1984 film Love in a Fallen City was the director’s first Chang adaptation, though she later described it as “the Waterloo of her career.”  

Based on Chang’s same-titled novella, the film portrays a romance between Bai Liusu, a woman who liberates herself from an abusive marriage, and Fan Liuyuan, a womanizer who grew up in England, during the 1940s when Hong Kong was under Japanese occupation.  

To get the rights, Hui first contacted her childhood friend’s father, Stephen Soong. Chang, who was living in Los Angeles at the time, granted them, along with her wishes for the movie’s success.  

However, the film was a box office and critical failure. Some critics even criticized it as “the most disappointing film in Hong Kong cinema of 1984.”  

The failure came as a hard blow to the young director’s career that deprived her of the freedom to make the films she wanted. In the decade since 1985, Hui instead made market-oriented romance, martial arts and gangster films.  

She described her state as “walking dead.” “I wasn’t really happy at the time. We were like headless chickens, filming lots of meaningless movies driven by the market. But sadly, at the time we had no choice,” Hui said.  

A still from Love After Love

Second Wind 
But in 1995, Hui regained her confidence and former acclaim for her comedic drama Summer Snow. The film won Best Feature Film at the 32nd Golden Horse Awards, Best Film at the 15th Hong Kong Film Awards, and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the 45th Berlin International Film Festival.  

Hui thought of Chang again. She was determined to adapt her favorite Chang work, Half a Lifelong Romance, a tragic love story set in the 1930s Shanghai. The film, Eighteen Spring, is Hui’s most successful adaptation of Chang’s works. It was nominated for Best Feature Film at the 10th Tokyo International Film Festival.  

In the article “Ann Hui: The Beauty of Mildness” published in the September issue of People magazine, film critic Mei Xuefeng argued that because most of Hui’s films are reserved in tone, she was unsuited to adapt Eileen Chang’s stories. Mei called Hui too “lukewarm” to grasp the cold, cutting and cruel tone of the writer.  

Xu Zidong, however, said Hui’s reserved take might be an advantage. “I don’t think it’s improper for filmmakers to add a warmer hue to the writer’s cold-toned fiction. Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution (the film was adapted from an Eileen Chang short story) is much warmer than Chang’s original fiction, but Lee’s successful adaption is widely deemed as on par with Chang’s original work, if not better,” Xu told NewsChina.  

“Nowadays, as Chinese cinema, Asian cinema and even global cinema becomes increasingly crude, any attempt to enhance the bond between literature and film deserves to be encouraged,” Xu said.  

Hui was open to the criticism. She argued that readers find their own meaning in Chang’s books. “From my perspective, it would make the adaption more alive if I can put my own feelings and emotion into it. The adaption is not only a work of Eileen Chang, but also a work of mine. Why bother to become a filmmaker if I have no message of my own to tell?” Hui told our reporter.  

“I feel totally OK if people think my film isn’t good enough. Everyone has different criteria, so I won’t argue at all. I am completely open to all these voices. I don’t like defending my work. That’s not my job,” the director said.  

Hui laughed before saying in a serious tone: “A basic spirit of literature and film is that both allow people to feel and freely express their own views.”  

A still from Love After Love

‘Laid-back Mindset’ 
Hui admitted that her most satisfying films are original works, not literary adaptations.  

“When adapting literature, many top directors like Volker Schlöndorff not only retell the story, but also reinterpret it to make something new out of it. I have neither reached that height in art nor have that ambition,” Hui said.  

Hui’s most ambitious and successful films are original works dealing with the lives and identity of ordinary Hong Kongers.  

Her “Vietnam Trilogy” – The Boy from Vietnam (1978), The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and The Boat People (1982) – focuses on the lives of Hong Kong’s marginalized Vietnamese inhabitants. Her 2008 feature The Way We Are accurately portrays the lives of the residents of Tinshuiwai, a suburban ghetto known for its high crime and unemployment rates. Her 2012 melodrama A Simple Life tells a deeply moving story about the relationship between an aging maid and her employer’s son, played by Andy Lau, whom she helped raise for decades.  

During a seminar on Ann Hui’s films in October 2018, Dai Jinhua, a critic and professor at the Institute of Comparative Literature and Culture at Peking University, commented, “Half of Hong Kong’s history is embedded in Hui’s film.”  

“Hui keeps things simple and honest. Her best films are mainly about ordinary Hong Kong people she is familiar with. Under her lens, the lives of the lower classes are naturally and honestly presented with touching details. She keeps a level angle, never glorifying nor looking down upon her subjects,” Dai said on the China Education Television-1 (CETV-1) program “Open Courses on Artistic Creation” in September 2019.  

Hui refused to be labeled as feminist or an auteur and sees filmmaking as a collective creation instead of individual expression.  

“Ann Hui is not the kind of director who has strong self-awareness as an artist and is fastidious about her own artistic expression. Instead, she often takes ‘unartistic elements’ into consideration, such as the benefit of producers, investors, cast and crew. Consequently, she might make some compromises in artistic expression. She is very critical when evaluating her past works, but in the course of filmmaking, she is not strict enough,” veteran Hong Kong film critic Li Cheuk-to wrote in a 2005 article that was included in Ann Hui on Ann Hui, a book on Ann Hui’s films published in 2010.  

“Some compromises have to be made if one attempts to make a film,” Hui told NewsChina. “It involves too many people, too many interests and too much money. If you refuse to compromise, you’d be better off writing fiction. I don’t see some arrangements as a compromise, but a kind of collective coordination. I’m only one part of the film production. Investors consider other elements – the screenplay, the cast and the market. I always believe that a director is not supposed to be a dictator.”  

Hui recently finished shooting her latest project – a documentary about Hong Kong poets. She is unsure about what comes next, but is not too worried.  

“I have a thick pile of screenplays at home but can’t find investors to fund them. But I am OK with that. It’s this laid-back mindset that has enabled me to keep filming all these years; otherwise, I probably would have given up long ago,” the director said.