For the ages

Updated: 2012-02-24 07:48

By Liu Wei (China Daily)

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 For the ages

Ann Hui is not afraid of getting old and enjoys making movies about the "graying generation". Jiang Dong / China Daily

At 65, Hong Kong director Ann Hui discovers growing old offers new freedoms. Liu Wei reports.

Hong Kong director Ann Hui, 65, still covers her mouth with her hands like a teenage girl when she laughs. She is not pretty but surely is impressive, with very her short bob, blue-rimmed glasses, all-black outfit and red sneakers. "I have eight pairs of Converse shoes - red, green, silver and peach," she says. "As an old woman I don't expect to look gorgeous, but I hope I at least don't look bad." Hui's latest film, A Simple Life, which earned the best actress award at last year's Venice International Film Festival, focuses on an old woman's final two years in a retirement home.

Hui has completed many films in her 30-year career, but her best known characters remain "old women" - such roles as May Sun in Woman Forty, Mrs Cheung in The Way We Are and Ah Tao in A Simple Life.

These roles earned the actresses awards - two for Deanie Ip in A Simple Life, in Venice, and at Taiwan's Golden Horse Awards, which is known as the Asian Academy Awards. She has been nominated again for April's Hong Kong Film Festival.

Many say Hui is courageous to make films about old women, because China's box office has proven audiences prefer to see handsome young men and pretty women.

"I am not courageous," she says, smiling. "The bosses who invest in my films are. I just do something I like and know well. Remember that I'm an old woman myself."

Several years ago, Hui's friend, film producer Roger Lee, told her the story of a maid who had served his family for 60 years. She brought Lee up and had taken care of the whole family for decades, until she fell ill. Lee looked after her in her last days but could not accompany her at the final moment.

His guilt pushed him to want to make a film about her.

Hui likes the story. She connects to old people, because she is one. And, more importantly, there is a social issue behind it, she says. "The graying population isn't just a Hong Kong problem," she says."We have a growing number of elderly people, but their voices are rarely heard."

Part of the film was shot in a Hong Kong retirement home. Hui stayed there for 15 days, working with eight actors and the house's inhabitants.

The experience changed Hui's attitude about getting old.

"I used to worry, especially when I discovered the changes in my body," she says. "But you find everyone's equal in the retirement home. They're all old and fragile. The lucky ones are surrounded by their families, but adjusting to old age is a phase in life that can be undertaken with dignity."

Years ago, Hui - who never married or had children - joked with friends she would live in a building with elevators when she got old so friends could come visit. The house should also be near a subway station and a cake shop, so friends can bring cakes for parties.

Now that she actually is old, she laughs at these younger ideas of her future and says she might actually end up in a retirement home. "I'm OK with living in a nursing home, as long as it has a good environment," she says.

She says her advancing age has taught her many things, including the value of taking it easy.

"I seemed to not need sleep when I was young," she says.

"If I needed a particular actor or actress, I would do my best to persuade him or her and would get rather anxious if I couldn't. But now, I believe there will always be someone else."

Hui entered the world of Hong Kong cinema in 1979, after graduating from the London International Film School. She soon became a flag bearer of Hong Kong's New Wave Movement because of her audacious exploration of social and political issues, such as revolution, immigrant identity and midlife crises.

She later worked with big stars and conventionally "commercial" genres, such as ghost stories and martial arts flicks. But she wasn't able to reclaim her previous glory.

Like many Hong Kong filmmakers, Hui went to the mainland to tap a broader market in the early 21st century. But her two films Jade Goddess of Mercy and The Postmodern Life of My Aunt won neither box office success nor wide critical acclaim.

Hui returned to Hong Kong in 2008 to make The Way We Are. The film, which cost only 1 million yuan ($150,000), depicts two old women who help each other. It moves many with the beauty of its simplicity.

She has found her new niche: films about ordinary people's lives and their relationships, with the least dramatic plotlines. They're more like documentaries for later generations to understand a certain period.

Hui knows well the genre will never thrive at the box office, but she enjoys it. The price she has had to pay is taking subways to work, not owning a house and struggling to find investors. "I used to make films to win acclaim, but I don't care much now," she says. "That's the freedom an old woman wins."

A Simple Life will premiere on the mainland on March 8.

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(China Daily 02/24/2012 page18)