Song of the Exile affords an all-too-rare opportunity to see the work of Hong Kong director Ann Hui, a world-class filmmaker of much passion and bravura, best known for The Story of Woo Viet (1981) and Boat People (1983).
Admittedly autobiographical, Song of the Exile makes clear why Hui identifies so profoundly with individuals responding to the impact of an alien culture. In The Story of Woo Viet, of the action genre, Hui tells of a Chinese-Vietnamese refugee caught up in the Manila underworld; in Boat People, her hero is an increasingly disillusioned Japanese photojournalist, returning to Vietnam some years after he witnessed the "liberation" of Da Nang.
At its heart, Song of the Exile, beautifully written by Wu Nien-Jen, widely regarded as Hong Kong's and Taiwan's best screenwriter, is a story of a mother (Shwu-Fen Chang) and daughter (Maggie Cheung) and their troubled relationship.
The year is 1973 and the daughter, Hueyin, has just received her M.A. at a London university. Having been turned down for a job at the BBC, she decides to return home to Hong Kong for her younger sister's wedding.
Immediately, the extremely conventional mother, long-widowed, and her free-spirited daughter clash. In the increasingly tense atmosphere, the daughter is flooded with memories of happier times when she was a child, growing up in Macao, doted upon by her paternal grandparents.
The heart of the matter is that the mother is in fact Japanese and has struggled for decades to become assimilated in an alien culture. She's in such despair over her clashes with Hueyin that she decides to make her first trip to her homeland in more than 30 years. At loose ends, Hueyin, who did not know about her mother's true nationality until in her teens, decides to accompany her, much to each's surprise.
Song of the Exile is a poignant, bittersweet odyssey of self-discovery and reconciliation. Hueyin has no idea that her mother was so well-born, that she had gone to Japanese-occupied Manchuria (where she met Hueyin's father) after a broken romance.
Significantly, we now see that the Chinese grandparents who showered such affection on Hueyin treated their Japanese daughter-in-law with scorn. One moment of revelation and understanding follows another for us as well as for mother and daughter, who are learning firsthand what it feels like to be an alien.
Superb in all aspects, Song of the Exile is a prime example of Hui's formidable storytelling skills. Hui seems to be one of those cinema naturals for whom everything seems to flow effortlessly. No filmmaker could be less self-conscious, yet few are so sharply and compassionately observant. Her films have an intimacy, an eye for detail that seems feminine, yet Hui's scope is invariably epic.
Song of the Exile has locations in Canton as well as London and Hong Kong and various sites in Japan. This singularly rich and rewarding film makes one eager to see the other seven features Hui has made in addition to The Story of Woo Viet and Boat People.
Song of the Exile
Director: Ann Hui
Cast: Shwu-Fen Chang, Maggie Cheung, Chi-Hung Lee, Tien Feng
Screenplay: Wu Nien-Jen
Rating: Not rated; complex adult themes
Running time: 98 minutes
In Cantonese, Japanese and English with English subtitles
Movies not reviewed by Times critics do not receive star ratings.