The Criterion Collection is a distribution company which has been operating for many years, remastering and bringing back to life many old, forgotten or just plain lesser-seen films from around the world. Initially a US-only company, it recently started releasing Blu-Rays in the UK as well. Sadly there are some Criterion films which don’t make it across the Atlantic thanks to licensing etc (like a lovely looking release of Kore-eda’s After Life I’d love to have!) but plenty of interesting looking stuff still finds it way to the UK. The most recent of which is Ann Hui’s Boat People, which released on 21st March. Naturally, my intersecting interests in Hong Kong cinema and the Criterion Collection piqued my curiosity and led to me purchasing this on the day of its release!
Synopsis and Review
Boat People follows Shiomi Akutagawa (George Lam), a Japanese photojournalist who we first see documenting a parade at the outset of the communist takeover of Danang. Three years later, he is invited back to Vietnam by their communist government to report on daily life now that the war is over. He is assigned a government minder who shows him the “New Economic Zones” where people are being re-homed and moved to, and visits a school where the children seem happy and sing songs in praise of Ho Chi Minh. Of course, as Akutagawa’s stay continues and he shakes his minder to explore Vietnam on his own, he finds out more about what life is really like for the common folk, becoming friendly with a 14 year old girl named Cam Nuong (Season Ma), meeting her family and exploring the area with her help and advice. The rest of the film tries to present a “real” look at post-war Vietnam, compared to the image its government wished to project to the outside world.
Boat People is a stark and at times frustratingly detached conception of what life in post-war Vietnam would’ve been like. Ann Hui’s direction invites you to look upon the human misery and brutality on display without ever gesturing towards any sort of comment on it. This might be a little off-putting for some, as the material is so clearly politically charged, but its author has no interest in commenting upon it. I don’t actually mind this, personally, as even when something claims to be apolitical it’s still coloured by the political climate of its day, it’s impossible to avoid. I can understand how this may seem unsatisfying for some, but in the end what matters to me is the film itself, which is well put-together, nicely shot, and the Criterion restoration looks great too. The choice to have the film’s protagonist be a Japanese photojournalist (and thus an outsider) is an interesting one, positioning him as the eyes and ears of the audience, a “neutral” viewpoint. Although, of course, this choice is not without its own political connotations as well. The content of the film’s story is harsh but still with a human core, and makes me want to learn more about Vietnam’s post-war history.
All in all, my experience with Boat People was a positive one.
Extras and Presentation
The extras and supplements that come with the Criterion release of Boat People are as follows:
- Ann Hui and Stanley Kwan Interview, Recorded August 2021 for this release (27 minutes)
- Cannes Press Conference (29 minutes)
- As Time Goes By, a documentary self-portrait film made by Ann Hui (61 minutes)
- Keep Rolling, a feature length documentary about Ann Hui’s career made by Man Lim-chung (119 minutes)
- A supplementary booklet featuring essays from film critic Justin Chang and scholar Vinh Nguyen
As usual, Criterion knocks it out of the park when it comes to extras. Two interviews, 40 years apart, and two different perspectives on Hui herself: one self-portrait and one from a longtime collaborator. It’s almost four hours of additional content, and good quality stuff too. I was also happy to find the supplementary booklet had a nice bit of heft to it, as some recent releases from Criterion have been lacking in that area (with booklets that would probably more accurately be described as leaflets, although still with nice essays/material nonetheless).
- Film: 6/10
- Presentation: 9/10
- Extras: 9/10
- Overall: 8/10
I would say that this is an extremely worthwhile release if you have any interest at all in the Hong Kong new wave of cinema, given that this film itself is an important part of that movement as well as the extras giving additional context and providing a nice, full portrait of Ann Hui herself as a film-maker. The film was good, and well worth watching, but the extra content is where this release really shined.