Once Upon a Time in Hong Kong: Ann Hui on “Love After Love”

The acclaimed Hong Kong director weighs in on her latest period piece, unveiled at the 77th Venice Film Festival.
Leonardo Goi
MUBI's series Ann Hui: Women Make the World is showing November 29 - December 31, 2020 in the United States.
Ann Hui’s fascination with the late Eileen Chang is a story spanning four decades. Books by the revered Chinese writer had already served as inspiration for Hui’s 1984 Love in a Fallen City and her 1997 Eighteen Springs. In Love After Love, she summons Chang’s novella, “Aloeswood Incense: The First Brazier”, to concoct a visually stunning, sprawling love story set in 1940s Hong Kong. At its center is Weilong (Ma Sichun), a Shanghainese student who’s left her family in hopes of continuing her education in Hong Kong. But money’s running out: as we first meet her, Weilong is tiptoeing inside the palatial villa owned by her estranged aunt Madame Liang (Faye Yu) to ask for help. Excommunicated from the family after she refused an arranged marriage, Madame Liang has ever since become the mistress of an affluent Hong Kong businessman, and by the time her niece comes knocking at the door, she’s inherited all his fortunes. Reticent at first, aunt Liang agrees to take the Weilong under her wing, beckoning the wide-eyed girl into a Great Gatsby-esque world of garden parties and soirées filled with members of Hong Kong’s crème de la crème. Among them is George (Eddie Peng), a handsome playboy with whom Madame Liang—twice his age, give or take—is having an affair. Smitten with the lad’s debonair charm, Weilong is enchanted from the off, and Madame Liang, who’s got a scheme of her own, encourages the liaison.
What follows is a sumptuously mounted love triangle, and a faithful exhumation of pre-war Hong Kong. Wong Kar-wai’s regular cinematographer Christopher Doyle, in his first collaboration with Hui, plays with the tropical light to entrancing effect, while legendary Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (also working with Hui for the first time) graces the proceedings with nimble piano motifs. But a large share of the plush beauty of Love After Love owes to veteran costume designer Emi Wada, whose credits, in a career spanning five decades, range from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Ran to Zhang Yimou’s 2004 House of Flying Daggers. Here, her ravishing haute couture garments aren’t mere ornaments, but narrative devices: a change of beret or a new cheongsam can sometimes reveal more than Anyi Wang’s dialogue-packed script.  
As a sentimental education, Weilong’s seesaws between transgression and emancipation. Madame Liang’s hedonism runs counter to all the girl’s been taught, and the aunt-niece relationship carries more tension than anything their respective liaisons with George could ever stir. Hui aficionados will also recognize familiar leitmotifs, most notably the director’s interest in fractured identities. Populating her filmography one often finds all sorts of drifters straddling East and West (think of the 1990 homecoming tale Song of the Exile, to name one), characters marooned in a state of chronic liminality, and forced to navigate irreconcilable worlds. Here, the chasm may be less evident in Weilong than in George, an errant of mixed heritage chasing after delusions of grandeur overseas: too big for Hong Kong and too small for the world.
A day after she picked up a Golden Lion award for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival, where Love After Love unveiled in the out of competition sidebar, Hui and I sat to discuss her latest.

NOTEBOOK: I was hoping we could start by addressing your ongoing fascination with Eileen Chang’s work. What drew you to this story in particular?
HUI: Well, it’s a love story, but it’s also a document of what life in colonial Hong Kong was like. And both of those things interested me. Eileen Chang was a Shanghai-born, Hong-Kong-raised writer, and as someone from Hong Kong myself, I must confess that, when it comes to portraits of what life in the city was like in the forties, I’ve never read anything as good as her stories. It’s to do with her ability to capture local colors, a certain way of life, a whole society. The whole setting was something I was instantly drawn to—it’s an era people hardly know, nowadays. As for the story, it is not your traditionally tragic romance: it’s about a woman who gives up her chastity and future for a man who turns out to be a scoundrel, but she just powers through and lives with it.
NOTEBOOK: It struck me as quite a subversive sentimental education, too. There’s a moment in which Madame Liang says: “the way I look for love isn’t ridiculous, it’s transgressive.”
HUI: Yes, and her beliefs around sexual freedom were unthinkable in the forties, and the book too was quite subversive. I don’t mean to say that Eileen Chang was necessarily approving of Madame Liang’s lifestyle, but she wasn’t condemning it either. And for the social norms of the time, the behavior was obviously quite improper, almost immoral.
NOTEBOOK: I’m curious as to how much flexibility you afforded yourself while adapting the book. I know that Eileen Chang has a big following, especially in Hong Kong, and I wonder if that shaped just how far from the text you could go?
HUI: In all fairness, I had very little space. The text on which the film is based is actually fairly short, a novella, and I chose to stick to it as much as possible, down to the dialogues, almost. That said, we did fill a lot of gaps. We ended up adding about a third of what you see on the film, which you wouldn’t have in the book. Especially in the second part, after the marriage. But I was very happy with the way the “new” text merged with Chang’s. Anyi Wang is an excellent and very well-known writer, especially in Hong Kong, and she managed to write it in Chang’s own fashion, so that the tone and register would match the original, and we could have the same style of writing. 
NOTEBOOK: Which reminds me: you’ve often delegated the script duties to other writers, but I’ve heard you describe the writing process as a very collaborative one.
HUI: Yes, absolutely.
NOTEBOOK: Was the process was just as collaborative here?
HUI: I find that when I work with writers of Anyi Wang’s caliber, I better leave them to themselves. I mean, obviously I can still tell them what I’d like to focus on, which aspects of the story I’m more drawn towards. There are just parts you’re more interested in, and ideas that you think would fit the narrative best. But we discuss all this in the abstract, and never break it down in terms of scenes, or specific details. Those things, those minutiae—I trust they’ll be the ones to provide them! Working with Anyi Wang, we did the research together, and then she brought me an outline, first, and once we discussed that, she got to work on the first draft.
NOTEBOOK: I was stunned by the atmosphere you were able to recreate here, and just how gorgeous the film looks. This was your first time working with Christopher Doyle. How did the collaboration come about?
HUI: I think that Christopher Doyle… [pauses] How should I put this? I think that, by his very nature and gifts, he was fated to work on this story. I’ve known him for so long, for over thirty years, and yet we never managed to work together, because of all sorts of different circumstances. Ever since his first films in the 1980s with Edward Yang, I’ve been stunned by the fluidity with which he’s able to capture light and shade. And when he started working with Wong Kar Wai, he perfected this gorgeous use of sunlight and coloring. He crafted a unique, extremely sensual touch. And this is just what the film needed. We needed to get just the right type of light for the story to work. Because this is a story of passion, and of tropical heat.
NOTEBOOK: I was also surprised by how much the costumes were able to communicate about the characters. They’re a joy for the eyes, sure, but they also reveal plenty about their owners’ emotions.
HUI: That’s credit to Emi Wada, of course, our costume designer. I admire her work so much. She’s 83 years old, you know, and I thought that would play a role in whether or not she’d accept to embark on the project. But she was very enthusiastic from the start. She read the script—I mean, she got someone to translate the whole thing for her—and then she went on to read all of Eileen Chang’s novels.
NOTEBOOK: That’s some serious effort!
HUI: It is! [laughs] But that’s how her clothes and costumes come into being. There’s so much care that goes into them, so much attention to detail. And you can only imagine the amount of work that she put into it here, with all the different characters she had to dress.
NOTEBOOK: I was wondering if we could talk about a key theme in the film, your emphasis on multiculturalism and fractured identities. The world Weilong ventures into is peopled with all sorts of polyglots, expats, Westerners, and Shanghai transplants. George himself is a great case study: “the Chinese think you’re a westerner, and the westerners think you’re a Chinese,” he’s mocked early on. It feels like a leitmotif running through your entire body of work, harkening the way back to Song of the Exile
HUI: But Hong Kong is a place like this, you know, caught in between different worlds. And it is only natural that the characters should reflect that restlessness. See, when I was little, half of my classmates emigrated to the States, because that was their families’ plan—to send the children abroad. In hopes they’d never come back, I guess—a parent’s ultimate ambition! [laughs] But you see what I mean? It’s a restlessness that’s deeply ingrained in the place.
NOTEBOOK: I think it was Allen Fong who, in reference to your Boat People, said that Hong Kong was "a big refugee camp…”
HUI: Oh yes, and that’s a good description!
NOTEBOOK: I know that in the past you’ve commented on the difficulties to secure funding for your projects… has that changed, in any way?  
HUI: I think people misinterpreted me on that front. Every filmmaker has difficulties shooting in Hong Kong, independent or commercial the production may be. The budget is never enough. Even Jackie Chang productions will suffer from similar concerns. I guess what happened was, at one point, the press realized I didn’t own my own place in the city—I still rent. That’s no big deal for me, don’t get me wrong. I was never interested in buying my own apartment. But in Hong Kong the whole thing sounds very strange. It’s kind of a superstition: if you don’t have your own apartment, you are to be pitied. I just don’t understand why that would be! [laughs] But I guess this was what gave credit to the rumor: “oh, I’m so poor, and I struggle to find money from investors.” And it just became this big sorry card, which they seem to like a lot.
NOTEBOOK: I was asking because I am curious to hear your thoughts on the arthouse vs commercial divide. I know you’ve often stated that you’ve been alternating between projects you really wanted to make, and others you needed to embark on in order to survive in the industry.
HUI: I think the distinction right now is more blurred. Before, you’d see a blossoming of these very personal and subjective arthouse films, which wouldn’t be concerned with the movie’s more commercial aspects—the presence of stars and the like—as with the need to capture a certain philosophy, a way of looking at the world. And you’d have a dichotomy between those films and the more popular fare, which were essentially variations of genre films, with their big stars, and so on. But I think the boundaries are more blurred now. If in the past arthouse films weren’t that concerned with the need to find an audience, that’s something they are now taking into account to a far greater degree. I mean, personally I would find it futile to shoot a movie without thinking of who, and how many, might be interested in watching it.
NOTEBOOK: I saw your Ordinary Heroes for the first time this year at the Rotterdam Film Festival, as part of a program on Hong Kong cinema, which also screened a few recent films on the protests in the country. Have you been able to keep abreast with those new projects?
HUI: I haven’t watched any of the more recent films about the protests yet. That said, I did watch plenty of films about the 2014 occupation, yes. 
NOTEBOOK: I know this is a sensitive topic, but I was wondering if you see yourself tackling the events of the past few months, sooner or later. 
HUI: Of course! I mean, my job is to tell stories about Hong Kong, and those things are now part of the country’s history. Obviously I would try to do it.


InterviewsAnn HuiVenice 2020VeniceFestival Coverage
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